"I think that children were the ones who reminded us, this is why we're doing this, this is where the hope is," says Juliana Urtubey, National Teacher of the Year and one of the 2021 PEOPLE of the Year
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For teachers, the past 20 months have been dizzying. When the pandemic hit, rapid-fire school closures forced them to adjust — and fast — to remote learning. There were no 7 p.m. serenades or parades of gratitude for their work, yet teachers kept at it, even as schools reopened this fall to new challenges: constantly shifting safety protocols, heated debates about curricula and nationwide staffing shortages.

Despite the load, teachers have found moments of joy.

"I remember the day we were allowed to have our preschool and kindergarten students back on campus," says Juliana Urtubey, 35, NBCT, a special education teacher for pre-K to fifth grades at Kermit R. Booker S. Innovative Elementary in Las Vegas and National Teacher of the Year. "They just marched through the hallways with backpacks they hadn't worn in a year and with their masks with so much bravery that I realized if they could be this strong, we could too. The challenge has been this balance that teachers are charged to sustain: the academic learning and social and emotional development of each child, and this sense of collective wellness. It's both beautiful and heartbreaking to see how much has been put on teacher's plates."

For more on PEOPLE's 2021 People of the Year issue and other top stories, listen below to our daily podcast on PEOPLE Every Day.

Urtubey — along with Teacher of the Year Finalists John Arthur, 39, a sixth grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City; Maureen Stover, 47, a ninth and 10th grade biology, earth and environment science teacher at Cumberland International Early College High in Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Alejandro Diasgranados, a fourth and fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Aiton Elementary in Washington, D.C. — are celebrated as 2021 PEOPLE of the Year, to represent the 3 million-plus teachers across their country who have persevered during these unprecedented times.

How did they keep kids logging on to Zoom all day, and help them not only stay engaged, but thrive? Here are their stories.

MAUREEN STOVER:

While online learning looked different, I still tried to find really unique ways to engage my kids. Because I was teaching Earth science and we were talking about ecosystems and photosynthesis, I started teaching from my garden and sent them all seeds. Then we were able to interact together about how their seeds were growing compared to what was growing in my garden. When they came back to face-to-face instruction, we then added to that and started planting seeds in the classroom. I think that's one of those ways that we really were able to embrace [a] scary [time] for teachers and for students, but give our students [tools] in a very familiar setting that enabled them to learn about themselves. I also think it gave teachers opportunities to really grow in our own personal development and our teaching practice. Some teachers emerged as leaders when they previously may have felt like they didn't always have something to add.

For more on the 2021 PEOPLE of the Year, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Juliana Urtubey
Juliana Urtubey on the cover of PEOPLE
| Credit: Ari and Louise

JULIANA URTUBEY:

My dad is a music teacher, and when my students were really struggling with their emotions — if you think about kids with learning differences, rules shifting is a very scary thing — I invited him to come into our class once a week and it became a thing. All of my students would chime in, and then their brothers and sisters and cousins and whoever else was at the house would sit around the screen for music time. We got so good at it that towards the end of the school year, our karaoke turned into a reading lesson. It was one of those things that reminded all of us that we can come together when things are really hard. One thing teachers don't want to do is minimize the struggle — people just faced so many hardships — but we do want to ride the joy and [the moments] where we all learned that coming together makes us stronger. I think that children were the ones who reminded us, this is why we're doing this, this is where the hope is.

ALEJANDRO DIASGRANADOS:

Remote learning was challenging for us, especially for a teacher like myself, who does not like to stay in the school building. We are often looking for field trips or any reason to get out of the building, whether that's a community walk or going through the museums in D.C. So one thing that I wanted to continue was experiential learning opportunities. That's challenging through a virtual setting, but I worked around it. I started to visit museums myself and take pictures. One day I walked around the museum with my laptop and allowed students to see where we would have gone if we were in-person. You'd be surprised — they were just as excited.

A lot of my students' parents were first responders or were on the front lines, so the kids were watching siblings and also trying to get their own education. So I'd be talking to my student and their younger siblings in the background. I learned all their names and their pets' names. I'd call attendance and make sure all of them — snakes, dogs, cats, everybody — was there. And they were so excited, especially the ones that didn't turn on their camera at first. [They'd say], "Ah, Mr. Dias, you didn't say hi to Pinky, my chihuahua who's right here." We did anything and everything to keep them entertained for those entire eight hours of the day.

People of the year teachers
Maureen Stover, Alejandro Diasgranados, John Arthur and Juliana Urtubey were recognized by the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington in October.
| Credit: Juliana Urtubey/Courtesy CCSSO

JOHN ARTHUR:

We talk a lot about social and emotional learning in our classrooms. I [used to] teach emotional learning in the past tense: "You know what guys, when I've had hard times, here's what I did." This past year and a half, it's all been present tense — "Guys, right now I am hurting. I'm at my limit. On the grunt meter, I'm up here right near red." Or, "I'm a little bit salty that you guys keep turning off those cameras. I'm also a little bit bugged that you beat me in Among Us because you were supposed to take it easier on me." There were all these opportunities to show how we address hard feelings as people, because we were all leveled by this pandemic. At the same time, I could model how you can bring humor and joy into hard situations. I would watch my students through these little rectangles, these blessed windows into their home lives. There was a lot of stuff that kids were embarrassed about having us see. So I had to model vulnerability. I had to model for them what it looks like when you let people see your pain. … And my kids got to see me choose happiness even when they knew I was sad.