After 17 years teaching, Autumn Rivera has been named not only Colorado’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, but also one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year Award.. The last time a teacher from Colorado was selected as a finalist for this honor was in 1994.
Rivera, a second-generation Eagle County resident, teaches science at Glenwood Springs Middle School and is an adjunct professor at Colorado Mountain College.
Rivera was nominated by a colleague last spring for State Teacher of the Year and received the honor in October. All State Teachers of the Year from across the country are entered into the national program, where a selection committee selects four finalists, out of 56 national educators, based on a lengthy application process.
“I just tried to embrace (the process) and I’m really, really excited to stand up for not just Colorado teachers, but also rural Colorado teachers,” Rivera said. “I think that’s a voice that’s not always heard and people are doing a wonderful job in our rural communities, so I’m thrilled to be able to shine a light on that and champion that.”
Rivera will soon travel to Washington DC with the other three finalists for her final interviews and the National Teacher of the Year will be announced in April.
“Either way, I’m so honored to be a part of the process and to be with these other amazing educators is truly humbling,” Rivera said. “I’m just super proud to be able to represent Eagle County – being a product of there, I have a lot of family that still lives there – it’s fun to be able to represent our amazing little communities and I’m honored to move forward and see what happens.
Rivera has fond memories of growing up just north of Dotsero in Eagle County. While attending elementary, middle, and high school in Eagle Valley, she remembers when the town of Eagle had its first traffic light and first fast food restaurant.
During those years, she explored different passions and hobbies – from serving on the local county council 4-H, developing an affinity for science and working at a local preschool to participating in the drama club, playing basketball ball and softball and manage school volleyball and track teams. However, one thing was consistent: she always knew she wanted to become a teacher.
In fact, in Eagle Valley Middle School’s 1996 yearbook, Rivera wrote that her goals included “being a teacher, interior designer, or archaeologist.” (This dedication was sent to the Vail Daily by Nancy Gamble, who knew Rivera’s family and taught yearbook in middle school for 25 years.)
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher in some aspect. I always remember as a kid being in a situation where I was always directing something – even though I was pretty quiet when I was as a child there was a group of college students and we were trying to play a game and I would always be the kid that was organizing everyone to make the game work,” Rivera said. “I think it was always something something that I really gravitated toward.”
Rivera also grew up with several great examples of teachers in her life. The first was his mother, who was also a college science teacher and later taught at Colorado Mountain College. From her mother, Rivera learned to incorporate hands-on learning experiences into her classroom.
“I’m definitely following in his footsteps,” Rivera said.
At Eagle Valley Middle School, there was Ms. Tamsen, who taught Rivera the value of enthusiasm and passion for the subjects you teach.
In high school, there was also Mr. Zehring and Mr. Zimmerman, she said. From Zimmerman, she gained an appreciation for the periodic table—she always wears a periodic table shirt he gave her when teaching the subject to his students. And from Zehring, she learned not just math, but the value of having structure and routine in a classroom.
Cliff Zehring said in a phone interview that what stood out about Rivera’s teaching was his “desire to learn”.
“She wanted to know more and she always takes it to the next level, to be the best she can be and to know as much as she can,” he said. “She has a desire to acquire this knowledge and to be able to share it with other people.”
After graduating from Eagle Valley High School in 2000, Rivera attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs. It was there that she realized she could merge her passion for science with her desire to become a teacher.
Rivera earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and a Master of Arts in Secondary Science Education from Colorado College, and a Master of Arts in Instructional Leadership from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. After which, Rivera eventually became a teacher.
Create a culture of exploration
Rivera taught for seven years at a middle school in Colorado Springs before returning to the mountains to teach at Glenwood Springs Middle School 10 years ago. While many people may be hesitant to teach the middle school age group, Rivera enjoys teaching students at this stage in their lives.
“It’s the very first time in their lives that they become their own people,” she said. “It’s the first time they’ve come out of who they were and become who they’re going to be and it’s truly an honor to be a part of this process. It’s a really painful growing experience for the most people, and being there for those students and letting them know it’s going to get better is always a lot of fun.
Throughout her career, Rivera has refined her teaching philosophy — moving from teaching science to students to helping students understand science, she said. Helping students figure things out for themselves is one of the things she loves most about teaching science. That, and being able to facilitate learning about the world around it.
“I find it fascinating, whatever the content area; it’s really fun to learn and explore. I feel like (science is) this mystery that we need to untangle and hear all the answers to, and I love doing that with students. I love introducing them to a phenomenon,” she said. “A lot of times in education, unfortunately, we have kind of taught our students to be curious and to ask questions. I really try to teach them that ability to look at something, notice something and wonder – I love it in science.
Not only did her experiences growing up in Eagle County inspire this love and appreciation for science and exploration, but it also influenced the way she conducts her class. One of his favorite parts of his upbringing was the small town vibe – how you can go grocery shopping and everyone knows each other.
“I really try to bring that into my classroom,” Rivera said, adding that she works hard to build community for her students.
Rivera said she achieves this by doing team-building exercises and making sure her students all get to know each other. She also administers interest surveys at the start of the year to ensure that she builds her lessons around what interests her students.
“When kids are more interested, they’re more willing to ask questions,” she said. “You get more membership that way.”
Every year, Rivera teaches on the Colorado River. But instead of teaching from books, she likes to help students get out there and create a shared experience to base her lessons on. For example, this year, learning about the Colorado River and the Grizzly Creek Fire, Rivera took her class rafting the river to see where the fire started and spread firsthand.
“When we would talk about things later, then we would have this common ground knowledge – it really helps with fairness trying to reach all students,” she said, adding that part of her philosophy teaching “really came from growing up in a situation where we were able to experience things, where we were able to go out and do things.
A few years ago, Rivera also engaged her students in awareness and fundraising to support Eagle Valley Land Trust’s efforts to purchase Sweetwater Lake. Later, the lake was named a Colorado State Park.
By creating these experiences and engaging students in scientific exploration and the world around them, it helps students connect with what they’re learning, Rivera said.
“We are really lucky in science because the best time to learn science is now,” she said. “It’s one thing to be able to read about it, but to experience it really defines those memories and helps students in situations, so it’s really exciting.”
It’s this model of experiential and hands-on learning — in addition to the number of leadership roles she’s taken on over the years — that Rivera says has taken her far in the Colorado and Teacher Awards. national of the year.
Throughout Rivera’s years of education, the last two, teaching through COVID-19, have been the hardest to teach, she said. However, Rivera chooses to see the positives of the experience and continues to move forward, for the students.
“I’ve really learned that I don’t have to focus so much on the missing work and this piece, but really on the students when they’re in class and what they know at that time, focusing really about those relationships. I think those things are so powerful. Keeping those relationships and really supporting the students,” Rivera said. “It all comes down to the students. I really appreciate them, I joke around with them, and they give me a thread twist; all these things keep me going.
Journalist Ali Longwell can be reached at [email protected]