With almost two decades of experience, Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member and Smith family descendant, Kortni Torralba was named one of 12 finalists for 2022 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. She brings a unique skill set and outlook to her position as a therapeutic educator at Moore Alternative School and Treatment.

As part of Moore Public Schools, the MAST Academy is the only school of its kind in Oklahoma. Along with Moore Youth and Family Services, staff provides students educational support, life skills development, individual and group counseling sessions, and art and recreational therapy, among other services.

“It’s spending your day working with therapists and social workers and parole officers, and these are all people who are there in some capacity to serve the child. We have been able to have these services fairly close together,” Torralba said.

While earning her bachelor’s degree, she received special education training and always wanted to work with youth with emotional behavioral disorders. Torralba connects with her students on a deep level and knows their hardships. As a teenager, she spent time as a ward of the state and graduated from an Oklahoma youth facility. Torralba viewed college as a way to prove wrong the teachers and adults who believed she would never achieve that goal.

“I think I somehow grabbed on to this idea of wanting to be a teacher, mostly because I felt like most teachers were terrible at their job,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I want to be a different teacher.’ I want to be the kind of teacher that says, ‘I really do care about you, friend. I really do.’ And I wanted the kids to know that.”

In her youth, Torralba disliked school, and she knows how her students feel when the education system gives them little to no attention. Her empathy acts as a critical component to their success, and she strives to provide a listening ear every day.

“I feel like somewhere in all this education and concern about standards and testing that we have lost the humanity of looking across the aisle at someone and saying, ‘Hey, I want you to know you’re a beautiful, interesting, amazing person. And I want to know you,’” Torralba said.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education interviewed Moore Youth and Family Services Executive Director Lisa Williams for a short video highlighting Torralba’s nomination.

“That unique combination that she has — her empathy, her understanding — but her skillset on top of that. Somebody who’s willing to look at the ‘why’ instead of just the behavior. … She will not give up until she knows that kid has gotten everything possible,” Williams said.

Throughout the last two years, many teachers across the country left their profession because of stress and burnout from the pandemic with no plans to return, exacerbating the already crippling staff and teacher shortage in Oklahoma. As a result, the state approved more than 2,600 emergency-certified teachers for the 2021-22 academic year, the most ever, according to Oklahoma Watch.

“The concern for me is that if we continue with this kind of system, what we’re losing out on is that experience, and experience makes a difference. … We’re at a point right now where all we’re focused on getting is instructors,” Torralba said, with little attention to social and emotional growth.

She prioritizes mental health and self-awareness as both a teacher and parent. She also gives some educational autonomy to the students, and the results speak for themselves. Many of Torralba’s high school-aged students enter her classroom with elementary-level reading comprehension. She helps them find books and other materials that spark their interest, and their love of reading follows. Torralba remembers one student who grew from a fourth-grade reading level to past high school in two years.

“I said, ‘Do you realize how many Nobel Prize-winning books you’ve read now?’ It’s amazing to think about. … And that kid can read like a beast. And I (told him), ‘Don’t let anybody ever, ever tell you, you can’t do something,’” she said.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education also interviewed Southmoore High School Freshman Principal Wendy Toscani, who has seen Torralba’s success and student empowerment for herself.

“We send her some of the most difficult kids that we have, and I hear stories about their improvement that are just amazing. She turns them into leaders by empowering them and giving them a sense of, ‘I can do this,’” Toscani said.

As an Indigenous person, Torralba recognizes the importance of improving education on a state and a tribal level.

“I feel like particularly as Native people, we need to look deep within our values and what is important to us, and use that to somehow create some kind of an educational system that’s going to nurture and support our children within it. Because it really is about relationships at the end of the day, and we have to have those teachers that are going to be there to truly connect one on one with kids,” she said.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education announced the 2022 State Teacher of the Year on Thursday, March 2, and Torralba did not win. More than the title, she wanted the chance to speak her mind about the state of education in Oklahoma and implement change. She hopes the winner feels the same.

“I want it to be somebody who’s going to be out there doing things and shaking stuff up a little bit. … We need some major system changes. I’m at least very specific with what I think needs to be changed,” Torralba said.

View Kortni Torralba’s Oklahoma State Department of Education Teacher of the Year finalist video at cpn.news/ODETorralba.