The five finalists for Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year have one thing in common: passion.
A middle school teacher who jumps for joy when her students do well. A history teacher who brings the digital world to his classroom. A music teacher who learns a new instrument every year. A biology and forensic science teacher who creates her own crime scene. And a science teacher who loves sharing hands-on experiences, even bloody dissections.
The winner, who will be announced on Wednesday evening in a ceremony at the Doubletree Hotel, will compete for the Florida Department of Education Macy’s Teacher of the Year. The Florida winner then competes nationally.
“I reward and celebrate every little step they take,’’ said Susan Castleman, who teaches middle school students who have repeated a grade. “If they pass the quiz, I’m like, ‘Whoa, yay!’ I make everyone stand up and clap. I make a little party in the classroom. It’s just a lot of recognition because they never really got it.”
Castleman, 43, is part of the Educational Alternative Outreach Program, where she teaches in the Secondary Student Success Center, or S3C program, at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center in Allapattah.
If the students do well, they can catch up to their actual grade, often doing the work of three grades in two years.
Castleman discovered she wanted to become a teacher after she had Mrs. Carole Abrams as her seventh-grade teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School in North Miami Beach.
“Because she helped me so much and she treated me like I was her daughter, that’s how I am with my students. I treat all my students as if they are my sons and my daughters,” Castleman said.
Abrams later became Castleman’s boss, when she invited her former student to join the Outreach Program in 2000. She switched to the S3C program in 2010.
“I see myself in her,’’ said Abrams, 74. “I see what I was like as a teacher. I see what I was like as a parent. It's like she's taking what she learned from me and putting into her own life.’’
Bradley Sultz, 49, started his career in a bank selling loans.
After Hurricane Andrew hit, however, he volunteered with the Red Cross and took a different view of his life.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be more to how I spend my day in the future then trying to sell loans,’ ” he said. “You have to be passionate about what you do, and I didn’t feel the passion. And I thought, ‘I think I want to be a teacher.’ ”
Sultz quit his job and went back to school at Florida International University, earning a master’s degree in social studies education. While in school, he worked as a substitute teacher at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School in West Little River, and had to take a second job as a waiter at Monty’s Stone Crab Seafood & Raw Bar in Coconut Grove.
“It was a little bit of a downward mobility, but sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward,” said Sultz, who was hired as a teacher at Turner Tech and eventually became head of the social studies department.
Last year, he moved to iPrep Academy in downtown Miami, where he is teaching AP Psychology and Honors World History and directs the school’s digital lessons.
“I’ve been blessed to teach so many children, from 18-plus years. I see them in the community. I can’t walk out in Aventura and not see kids I’ve taught,” Sultz said.
Every year, Christine Napoles chooses a different instrument to play along with her students.
“Just having the kids see me learning along with them brings a whole new dynamic to the classroom,” said Napoles, 34, a music teacher and band director at Hialeah Middle School. “Teaching is learning. As a teacher you are a student for life, you just build upon our knowledge and your experience.”
This year, Napoles picked the clarinet. She said she doesn’t have a favorite instrument, but loves all the instruments her band plays.
“When you are in the middle of rehearsal you forget everything that happens outside that room, and I know that students do to. Students come in with a wide variety of issues, and when we are together, you see all of that erased from their faces,” Napoles said.
Maria Donohue studied pre-medical biology and chemistry at Barry University and had her application for medical school ready when she decided to become a teacher.
Today, the 28-year-old teaches biology and forensic science at Hialeah Gardens Senior High School.
“I work with different subject areas because I think they have to see that biology isn’t just stuck in this building,” Donohue said. “So we go outside the classroom. I bring in things they are interested in and can relate to.”
Donohue explained DNA structure by using the Twilight book series. She explained the theory of evolution by creating a zombie lab. She asked her students to write a poem after they visited the wetlands.
For her forensic science class, she created a crime scene where students had to find and analyze the clues.
“I want them to be creative,” said Donohue. “As technology gets better, people don’t really need to do too much. I want them to understand that if they want to be successful, they need to be able to think outside the box.”
In his senior year at Florida International University, Marshall Ruffo decided not to apply to medical school. Instead, he pursued a teaching career.
“Some people pick a job and a career. Education and teaching sort of picked me,” said Ruffo, 36, a science teacher at Centennial Middle School in Cutler Bay for 10 years.
Behind Ruffo’s classroom, there’s a lab station where the students apply the science they learned in class. In a recent class, his students dissected lion fishes donated from Biscayne National Park.
“Hands-on activities in my field, in science, make the greatest impact with our students today,” Ruffo said. “They retain the information and can understand what’s going on by doing the actual science. Not reading about it, not hearing about it.”