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.