College of Education alumna named state Teacher of the Year

This year’s Oregon Teacher of the Year incorporates her culture combined with the experience she gained in an innovative UO program to help shape her approach with her students.

Nicole Butler-Hooton belongs to the Siletz and Apache tribes and was one of the first graduates of the College of Education’s Sapsik'ʷałá Teacher Education program, which provided her the space to develop as an educator.

“Something that is really important to me is to be an educator who really values culture and cultural identity,” said Butler-Hooton, who teaches at Irving Elementary School in Eugene’s Bethel School District.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the UO with an ethnic studies minor, Butler-Hooton applied for the Sapsik'ʷałá Teacher Education program. Though it would only be the second cohort of students, Butler-Hooton knew it would prepare her for teaching while also encouraging exploration of her cultural identity.  

“Being a culturally responsive teacher is something that I pride myself on,” she said. “I know that having those roots in the Sapsik'ʷałá program and having curriculum based around our culture and our heritage made me feel safe, and it created a space for me. And that's what I hope to do with my students.”

Founded in 2002, the Sapsik'ʷałá Teacher Education program addresses the gap in American Indian and Alaskan Native teachers. This program collaborates with all nine federally recognized sovereign Indian nations of Oregon and the UOTeach master’s program to integrate pieces of indigenous culture into the traditional teacher licensure model.

Students in the program receive a grant that covers the cost of tuition, books and a computer, as well as a stipend. After program participants graduate, they must teach for two years in schools with high Native American student populations. 

Butler-Hooton graduated from the Sapsik'ʷałá program in 2004 and was hired at Irving Elementary the following year. This year is her 15th at Irving as a second-grade teacher.

Central to her teaching philosophy are building collaborative relationships and creating inclusive environments with students. Butler-Hooton believes developing relationships with students and their families is the first step to learning. Once a connection is established, implementing curriculum in a culturally inclusive manner fosters learning and growth.

“I place a lot of value on getting to know my students and their cultures and creating meaningful partnerships with student families,” Butler Hooton said. “As we navigate distance learning together, I want to do my best create a successful year for myself, my students and their families.”

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Butler-Hooton is on the Bethel Teacher Leadership Committee, which focuses on fostering equity and culturally competent teaching in the Bethel School District. She is also the Eugene-Springfield representative of the Oregon Indian Educators Association, where she strategizes different ways to support local Native families and students.

Butler-Hooton is also an active member in her tribe and is learning her tribal language with her daughter now.

“Learning has always felt truly empowering to me and is something that I was taught by my parents and grandparents to really value,” Butler-Hooton said.

As the 2021 Teacher of the Year, Butler-Hooton receives an award of $5,000 and a matching donation to Irving Elementary. She will travel across the U.S. throughout the year speaking at conferences; presenting at education workshops; addressing student, civic, higher education and governmental groups; and operating special=interest programs tied to her passions.

To give to the Sapsik'ʷałá Teacher Education program, visit the UO Duckfunder site.

—By Meghan Mortensen, College of Education