Myrna Betancourt, who teaches culinary arts at South Dade Educational Center in Homestead, spends her days in the kitchen — teaching her students about the finer points of being a chef, running a restaurant, waiting tables.
It could pass for the popular Food Network show, Chopped, but her students aren’t top chefs — they’re young adults trying to rebuild their lives, often from homeless situations.
To Betancourt, who worked as a social worker for 23 years before becoming a teacher, it’s this challenge that’s most gratifying.”
“I hope to retire at this school,” she said. “With the experience I have as a social worker, I am able to help a lot of people on a personal level, many of whom are underprivileged. That’s what makes this place great to me.”
Betancourt’s track record of helping others is a major reason she was nominated by her peers as Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year, one of five teachers in Miami-Dade Schools to have earned this accolade. The winner will be announced Wednesday at a dinner and compete at the statewide and national levels.
While Betancourt teaches culinary skills, Jason Saunders spends his days teaching second graders the finer points of math, science and social studies at William Lehman Elementary in Kendall. He also mentors first-time teachers and is the drama and safety patrol adviser.
“I do a lot of hands-on teaching and putting myself in their shoes,” said Saunders, who has been teaching at the school since 2004. “I just try to relate to them. Sometimes some students don’t know as much as everyone else and it’s important that I make sure everyone is comfortable.”
Kristin Trompeter, who has been an ESE reading, yearbook and TV production teacher at Rockway Middle School for nine years, said helping students learn gives her tremendous satisfaction.
“I noticed that all of my volunteer work in the past involved helping and tutoring others,” said Trompeter, who studied English at the University of Florida. “I get to experience learning across the board with my students, and it’s really fun to see them make connections to the real world and see them start to actualize.”
Trompeter said the best part of teaching has been when former students return and update her on their progress.
Racquel Gibson, who has been teaching math at Lake Stevens Middle School in Miami Gardens for eight years, said having a 16-year-old daughter inspires her to have a personal relationship with her students.
“I found that I was giving all of myself into it,” said Gibson, a Nova Southeastern University graduate who studied business. “Seeing the need and wanting to fix everything became the most challenging part for me, but I learned it was a balancing act. I incorporated some of the fundamentals I learned in business and applied it to creating a successful classroom.”
She also applied the partnership concept, teaming up with the math department at Miami Dade College and Junior Achievement at AT&T to benefit her students.
The only high school teacher nominated, Nichole Anne Dino, teaches language arts at Miami Carol City High, where she has taught for nine years. Teaching in a lower-income community definitely has its challenges — and rewards.
“We have children who have high poverty, may not eat throughout the day or may be homeless,” said Dino, who teaches language arts to freshmen and seniors. “I try to make the classes as engaging as possible. My classroom is in a circle, and we are a community.”