2022 Colorado teacher of the year finalist Autumn Rivera smiles at the camera. Photo by Jeanne Souldern.

Out of Colorado’s 178 public school districts, the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) has a special teacher in its ranks.

Autumn Rivera has been named one of seven finalists for the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year award. She is a sixth-grade science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School (GSMS) and is currently in her 17th year as an educator.

A second-generation Coloradoan, Rivera grew up north of Dotsero, in Sweetwater. Identifying as Spanish in heritage, she noted that her father was born at Valley View Hospital. Her grandfather was a track patrolman in the Glenwood Canyon.

After graduating from Eagle Valley High School, she earned a bachelor degree in biology and a master’s in teaching secondary science from Colorado College.

Beginning her teaching career in Colorado Springs, she taught seventh and eighth-grade science. After living there for 12 years, she returned to the Western Slope. As Rivera said, “The big city was a little bit too much, and I needed to come back home to my mountain.”

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), said the Teacher of the Year program is a part of Colorado statute to be administered annually by CDE.

Meyer explained, “There are two routes to become Colorado Teacher of the Year — you can be nominated to apply, or teachers can apply on their own. In this case, Autumn was nominated by someone in her school community and invited to apply.”

Rivera was one of 26 teachers throughout the state to apply. Meyer explained the review panel is a “varied group” of members of CDE staff, nonprofit organizations focused on education and the Colorado Education Association (CEA) — the state’s teachers union.

She spent this summer answering the education-focused application questions, which required 500 to 600-word responses. After the panel’s application review, seven finalists were selected. Meyer said, “Then, ultimately, the Teacher of the Year is going to be announced by the end of October.”

Having taught at GSMS for ten years, Rivera’s goal is to “get students passionate about science.” She believes strongly in experiential education, having recently led her annual ecology unit’s “big expedition” to observe conditions of the Colorado River. She said, “because of this local phenomenon that just happened, we’re studying the Grizzly Creek Fire, including how it affected the Colorado River and the mudslides. We took the students rafting last week because I figure if we’re going to learn about it, they should see it with their own eyeballs.”

Rivera also believes in equal opportunity in the classroom. By including all students on that field trip, she said, “I try to focus on equity and making sure everyone has equal opportunity and the support they need. I want to make sure I give them the same background knowledge before we move forward. I said, ‘Let’s all go, as a class, to see this burn area’ — it helps all the students to be on the same page. (Provigil) ”

The National Teacher of the Year began in 1952 to reward excellence in teaching. Since its inception, two Colorado Teachers of the Year have risen to receive national honors — in 1965, Richard E. Klinck from Reed Street Elementary in Wheat Ridge and, in 1978, Elaine Barbour from Coal Creek Elementary in Montrose.

The most recent RFSD teacher to be awarded as Colorado Teacher of the Year was in 2016, when Leticia Guzman Ingram — a teacher and coordinator of the English Language Development (ELD) Program at Basalt High School — was chosen.

This summer, Science Friday, a weekly call-in talk show on public radio stations that focuses on news and information in science, reached out to Rivera to be part of their educator series looking for ways to teach during the pandemic.

She collaborated with Dr. Selina Wang, a researcher at the University of California, Davis’ Olive Center. Wang is researching antioxidants in food, and she and Rivera spoke specifically about olives. Rivera recalled, “The research was fascinating. I created a resource that went with her research so you could use it in a classroom, and then we presented it as an educator forum to educators all over the nation.”

Rivera teaches her students that opportunities, especially in the world of science, are endless. She said, “I heard [animal behavioral scientist] Dr.Temple Grandin speak at a conference, and she talked about how students are only going to be interested in jobs that we teach them about. There are so many amazing jobs and careers they don’t even know about. If they’re not exposed to them, they won’t even know that could be a possibility. So it’s our job as teachers to help students see a wide range of different possibilities.” 

Rivera, a middle school science lead for RFSD, has also advocated in virtual meetings at the state level. She is on the board of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers, representing the Western Slope and volunteers with the Colorado Science Education Network and also serving on their steering committee.

Meyer said the Colorado Teacher of the Year also serves as a Colorado Education Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet member. They will meet and get to know other Teachers of the Year recipients and are eligible to be selected as the National Teacher of the Year.

Denver7 sponsors the Colorado Teacher of the Year program. Award partners include CEA, Adams State University and Blue Bell Ice Cream. 

“Teaching is not an individual job — it’s something we do together as a team. I’ve had amazing teammates and support throughout my career and I’m very grateful for them and my students. They keep me laughing and keep it fun. I’ve looked at other jobs, but I’ve yet to find another job where you can have Spirit Days. Until I can have a Spirit Day somewhere else, I think I’ll stay in the teaching world,” Rivera said.

Here’s to many more Spirit Days throughout Rivera’s teaching career.