TAMPA – They connect with their students on Twitter, build robots in class and sneak math and science into art lessons.
In a time when the education landscape is rapidly changing, six teachers identified as Hillsborough County’s best — one of who will be named teacher of the year Thursday — share the drive to make their classrooms hubs for modern learning while juggling new technology, new standards and a new way of proving their worth.
These parts of their jobs, they agree, are even helping them improve as teachers.
“I think the traditional classroom is dying off,” said Jefferson High School social studies teacher Patrick Boyko, one of the top teachers. “I think we have to change with it.”
This approach is paying off. Each of the finalists is rated “highly effective” in the most recent evaluations available from the Hillsborough school district, based on peer and principal feedback as well as student test scores.
Teachers at each of the county’s 200-plus schools chose top teachers in November. In December, the district’s principal councils for elementary, middle and high school whittled the list to six finalists. Then, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s staff interviewed each of the finalists to determine tonight’s winner.
Hillsborough’s 2014 Teacher of the Year will be announced tonight at the annual Excellence in Education awards ceremony at the Straz Center for Performing Arts. A reception, hosted by the school district and the Hillsborough Education Foundation, will begin at 5:30 p.m. Also announced Thursday will be the Instructional Support Employee of the Year and the Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year.
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When Florida adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, finalist Karen Barmore applied the rigorous new language arts and math goals to her art classes at Gorrie Elementary School. It worked, she said.
Some opponents see the Common Core as overreach by the federal government and others worry it will result in even more high-stakes testing. Advocates say the standards set more rigorous expectations for students, with an emphasis on critical thinking, and will better prepare them for college and careers.
“It’s a natural fit into the arts,” Barmore said. “They need to learn how to analyze what they see. At first, they kind of fight it. They are used to TV and things flashing in their faces. In the end, I’m finding they’re thankful.”
Barmore, who began her teaching career at Gorrie in 1994, works science and math into her art classes as much as possible, in a way students don’t realize they are learning those skills. For example, she teaches them about angles during origami lessons.
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Luis Alvarez, 30, started teaching at Leto five years ago when there were only 30 students in the school band. A big group of seniors had just graduated and many ninth-graders were coming in without much drive.
Since then, Alvarez has built the band up to 80 students by talking to parents and students on the phone and in person at Pierce and Webb middle schools, which feed into Leto. He also sent letters home with students with information about the program in Spanish and English.
The school has a large Hispanic enrollment and Alvarez is a native Spanish speaker. He moved from Puerto Rico to Florida at age 4.
Teaching is in Alvarez’s blood. His mother and grandfather were educators and his brother, Sammy Alvarez, is the band director at Memorial Middle School.
Alvarez decided he wanted to join the profession too, after giving private trombone lessons in high school.
Like Barmore, Alvarez says the Common Core standards set helpful goals for his music students.
“I actually like the system,” Alvarez said. “It legitimizes what we do in music education.”
Alvarez describes his classroom as a “very structured environment.” He has high expectations for his students and tries to get to know each one individually.
“What I found is the kids I have the best relationships with work the hardest for me,” he said.
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Boyko, 34, the Jefferson High finalist, said his motivation to enter the profession was sparked by his father, a high-school dropout who loved history, and his mother, a microbiologist.
In his class on wars of the 20th century, Boyko runs a semester-long simulation in which he divides his students into six empires and has them elect leaders, form treaties and “fight,” using a board game. He also hosts chats on Twitter and Facebook to keep the conversation going outside the classroom.
“It made it relevant,” said Boyko, who is also the school’s tennis coach, swimming coach and reading club sponsor.
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Hunter’s Green Elementary School finalist Reagan Lawrence, 31-year-old fifth-grade teacher, says she is not just an instructor but a performer.
“I do a lot of singing and dancing,” she said. “Keeping them engaged is important.”
Each time Lawrence begins a new reading unit with her students, she has them learn the lyrics of a new song. They break down each sentence and explore the different figures of speech. She starts off every school year with “Eye of the Tiger” by 1980s rock band Survivor.
Lawrence, originally from Baltimore, Md., also interacts with her students on social media sites, sharing quotes and photographs from class.
“Our students need to be taught how to use social media appropriately,” she said. “I pride myself on keeping up with my students on Twitter, Instagram and email. It’s a good avenue to get out positive messages to students.”
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A proponent of the school district’s new bring-your-own-device program, Amanda Morin, 30, puts a heavy emphasis on technology in her seventh-grade civics class at class Walker Middle Magnet School.
“The kids love it and they use their devices quite a bit in class,” she said. “A lot of the apps I use, they can get on their phones.”
She also has become a fan of Edsby, the online portal the district rolled out this school year for teachers to use in posting post grades and interacting with students and parents.
“I hardly ever get an email from a parent asking for clarification on what’s going on,” she said. “I would say that means I’m communicating well with them.”
Morin began considering teaching as a career as an eighth-grader at Buchanan Middle School. The Texas Instrument 82 calculator had just come out and her teacher asked if she would learn how to use one and then teach her classmates.
During a typical day in her class, which is held in a computer lab, Morin’s students come in and watch news clips on their computers and answer questions about current events.
She and the other finalists agree that finding enough time to get everything done is one of the toughest parts of being a teacher.
“I have to really manage my time and focus on the most important things first,”she said.
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When she was in college, Sheehy Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Leronya Vaughn-Dunmore, 50, started off taking architecture and engineering classes, thinking she would end up in one of those fields. But she quickly switched gears and decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps as a teacher.
The Tampa native has now been teaching for 27 years, and eight of those have been at Sheehy, where she teaches science, math and social studies.
There, she has launched several technology-driven initiatives, incorporating robotics, virtual labs and Skype into her classes. She plans to take students to this year’s STEM expo at the University of South Florida, featuring work .
“We need to prepare children early and let them know there is an option other than football,” she said. “Children learn best through hands-on activities and real-world applications. It’s just an interesting way to get children engaged in the learning process and excited about science, math and engineering.”
This year, she had her fifth-graders design a robot that could leave the classroom, roll down the hallway, knock on a door and deliver a message.