Practically every hand in Precious T. Symonette’s class is up in the air.
The creative writing teacher at Miami Norland Senior High is ready to move on to the next part of her lesson. But the students, seated in a tight circle in the middle of the room, are begging to share what they’ve written in a quick warm-up assignment.
“Wait. Wait. Wait,” they say. “One more.”
Symonette has her students captivated by writing. Her extraordinary efforts were rewarded on Thursday when the 10-year classroom veteran was named Miami-Dade County’s 2017 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year.
She cried as supporters burst into celebration, waving and throwing napkins and swamping Symonette with hugs. She had to catch her breath before taking to the podium to thank what seemed like her entire school — including the IT guy. Her voice cracked as she spoke of her students: “My babies.”
“Thank you for trusting me,” she said. “You are heroes.”
Her prize: a new car, courtesy of Kendall Toyota. She’ll also get $5,000 from Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who announced he would donate a portion of his salary to all the finalists.
“It makes me happy,” he said.
Mia Esposito, a fifth-grade math teacher at Lenora B. Smith who insists “everyone in this classroom WILL go to college,” won Rookie Teacher of the Year.
“I can’t wait for more years of teaching and growing as an educator,” Esposito said.
Symonette brings tenderness to teaching in an inner-city school where students often struggle — in their home lives, at school and especially in writing. She starts class with a handshake or a hug with each student.
“I absolutely love them,” she said.
Symonette said her role as a teacher is to change students’ minds about writing and get each to use poems, journals and short stories to explore his or her life. Her mantra: “Write yourself into existence.”
“I constantly model tolerance and acceptance in my class so they are comfortable to be who they are. I also force them to explore more who they are,” she said.
Symonette is a Freedom Writers teacher, trained under the famous California teacher who used writing to turn around the academics of her troubled students. Symonette also hosts spoken word competitions for her students — just another way she helps students find their own voice.