When the Colorado Teacher of the Year announcement was made, Rivera said, "I was a little shell-shocked. There were a lot of cameras and a lot of people, but it was really cool and it was fun to celebrate with the kids." Photo by Jeanne Souldern.

Autumn Rivera, a sixth-grade science teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School (GSMS), was awarded 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year in a surprise ceremony on Oct. 22 at GSMS, with students, staff and her family in attendance. Rivera, after taking a deep breath, said, “And it’s been a whirlwind ever since.”

Rivera, one of seven state finalists, said former Teachers of the Year called to congratulate her. She said they’re a tight-knit community, happy to welcome aboard a new award recipient.

They told her, “‘This is just the beginning. Enjoy the moment; it’s going to be crazy,’”  said Rivera. “I think a lot of people don’t understand — I didn’t understand — the enormity of this award; it’s a big deal! It’s a huge honor, and with that comes a lot of work and responsibilities.”

Rivera spoke with 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year Gerardo Muñoz, chosen in 2020, who “has been great, and helpful in processing through it with me.” Immediate plans call for Rivera to make a guest appearance on Muñoz’s podcast, “Too Dope Teachers and a Mic,” in a couple of weeks.

After GSMS’s Thanksgiving break, Rivera will travel to Denver to meet Colorado Department of Education (CDE) staff members to learn more about her official duties while serving from January to December 2022. CDE is the principal department charged with administering the annual award.

As the Colorado Teacher of the Year award recipient, Rivera automatically becomes Colorado’s nominee in the National Teacher of the Year competition. Should Rivera receive that honor, she would become only the third-ever Colorado teacher to do so since the award’s inception in 1952. The last time a Colorado Teacher of the Year received national honors was in 1978.

Teachers of the Year from every state are scheduled to meet in February. However, Rivera said their schedule is subject to change, depending on COVID-19 restrictions. For example, the 2021 awardees made the traditional visit to the White House just last month, when typically the visit occurs in April.

The National Teacher of the Year will be named in December. If awarded those honors, Rivera would take a year off from teaching to represent teachers across the country.

Rivera said she would focus on equity in education and ensure that all students have access to quality education, regardless of family income or background. Rivera said, “So much of our education right now is focused on the middle-class world, and not all of our students are coming from the same background.”

Those educational inequities “have always been there and the COVID pandemic really brought it to light,” Rivera said. “Here [in the classroom],” she explained, “everyone is in their seats, and I don’t know what’s going on at home. But when we were teaching online, all of a sudden we were able to see that this kid has a quiet place where they can sit and do their work. They have their desk and computer; they’re ready to go. While this other kid is in the corner with other kids, each trying to pay attention, and they don’t have a quiet place. They have to babysit their siblings, so they can’t stay online and learn. Online learning took away that even playing field of the classroom.”

Rivera was a co-chair of the “Yes on 5B” committee that supported Ballot Initiative 5B, a school mill levy override to increase salaries for Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) teachers and staff. 

“Until we have education in Colorado funded at the proper level, schools are doing the best they can to offer support. We can do better; we can always do better,” she said. 

The measure’s success on the Nov. 2 ballot led Rivera and other teachers to show their appreciation to voters by standing on Grand Avenue in Glenwood Springs with thank-you signs.

“We stood on Grand Avenue before [Election Day] to ask them to vote for it, but it was even more powerful to stand on Grand Avenue with signs thanking them for voting for it,” Rivera shared.

Regarding her award, Rivera offered a special thank-you to the RFSD community. She said, “I would not have won this award if it wasn’t for [me] coming to this community and then being allowed to be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be. This community has been so open, welcoming and supportive.”

Rivera recalled a recent rafting trip with her students. “When we wanted to take the kids out rafting, we had local raft guides who were like, ‘Come on, we’ll take your kids out rafting.’ We’ve been really lucky and honored to have that support from community members,” she said.