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Meet the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year

Autumn Rivera infuses belonging and forward thinking into her science classroom.

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Autumn Rivera, science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School, has deep roots in her community. She grew up not far from the school where she now works, and credits the small-town environment with teaching her to cultivate relationships with students and their families.

In her 17 years of teaching, she’s taken on leadership roles and joined district, state, and national committees for science education; still, her focus never wavers from the students in front of her—she loves going to their sporting events and even checks in on past pupils once they’ve reached high school. We caught up with Rivera to learn more about her classroom.

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Colorado Parent: Why do you teach middle school science?

Autumn Rivera: “I’ve been a science nerd from birth—and my mom was a science teacher.
They (middle schoolers) are becoming their own person for the first time. They are breaking away from their parents a little bit, but they still need an adult to check in and see how things are going. To be that person is such an honor, to get to hear what students are doing, what they’re thinking, and be that sounding board, it’s one of my favorite parts. Then helping them to see how science sort of ties into that by letting them take risks and trying something new, it allows them to carry over an adventurous spirit into the rest of their lives.”

CP: How do you teach science in a way that will make a difference in the world?

AR: “This is one thing that I’m super passionate about: the belief that science and life is not happening for students in the future, but it’s happening right now. We were doing a unit on the Colorado River and its tributaries, and in the course of that, one of my students brought to my attention that there was a local lake up for sale. There was a land trust that was trying to purchase it and sell it to the U.S. Forest Service for preservation. I took it to the class and we researched pros and cons.

The students wrote their own letters to the land trust. On their own, they organized a bake sale, sold ornaments, and made T-shirts; they were able to raise about $600. Governor Polis recently announced it as the first state park of its kind in Colorado that is going to be owned nationally. It was really cool to see that happen (partly) from a sixth grader that took an interest.”

CP: How do you achieve equity and a sense of belonging in your classroom?

AR: “(I’m) challenged as a teacher to look through something as simple as daily routines that I have, posters in the room, how I address my students, all the way up to bigger ideas like our dress code at our school. I have also worked at a state level with some district leaders to bring equity into our new state standards, and focus on ways we can make sure science is for all students and not just a select few.

By getting to know students and their backgrounds, what interests them, you can tweak a lesson plan so it’s more exciting for them to learn.”

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Three Lessons From Ms. Rivera

Acceptance Is Powerful

“It’s so important that a student walks in, especially in middle school—where you don’t feel like you belong even in your body—and have a place, a safe space where they’ll be called the pronoun that they want to be called, the name they would like to go by, and they’ll be treated as a person.”

Students Have the Ability to Make Change

“Many times we tell our students, ‘When you get to high school,’ or, ‘Next week,’ or, ‘When you’re in college…’ I try to help my students understand that it’s happening right now and that they can make a change right now.”

When Days Feel Tough, Take a Break

“I think sometimes when it gets to be too much, I like to take a step back, and say, ‘We need to have fun today. For the next 20 minutes, let’s just have fun and laugh together.’”

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