Top four Miami-Dade teachers vie for Teacher of the Year

For The Miami Herald

Out of more than 18,000 teachers in Miami-Dade County public schools, four have been chosen as finalists for teacher of the year.

One teacher was selected from each of the north, central and south regions of the county and the district’s alternative education programs.

The winner of the 2018 Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year will be announced on Jan. 26 along with the rookie teacher of the year. The awards dinner will be held at 6 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center at 711 N.W. 72nd Ave. The winner will compete for the state title, which will be awarded in July.

Here are the four finalists for Miami-Dade County.

North Region: Nadia German, Ojus Elementary

Nadia German is the kind of teacher who can often be spotted in the audience at her students’ after-school activities, cheering and waving signs. She has gone to everything from YMCA talent shows to baby showers, making an effort to be there when it counts.

“Whatever is important to you is important to me,” she said, describing her philosophy. “Get involved and interested in what they’re interested in. [Show] that you care about them, not just how they’re doing in school.”

German teaches fifth grade at Ojus Elementary in northeast Miami-Dade, where she has worked for the past 11 years. Although teaching has come naturally to her, German did not set out to be a teacher. She studied psychology in college and planned to be a school psychologist, but a short stint as a substitute teacher changed her mind.

“When I got into the classroom I was like, ‘Forget it. This is where I belong,’” German said.

Her success as a teacher comes in part from German’s ability to relate to the challenges many of her students face. German immigrated to the United States from Jamaica at the age of 9 along with her mother and four siblings. Her family came seeking a better life, but making ends meet in their new country proved to be a struggle. With their father absent and their mother constantly at work, German and her siblings had to look out for themselves.

“I know the importance of having someone there that you can go to whenever you need direction in life,” German said. She shares her upbringing with her students to show them that it’s possible to succeed in spite of difficult circumstances. “My kids know me. I’m not opposed to sharing who I am,” she said.

Central Region: Rodolfo Diaz, South Miami Senior High

Before he was a teacher, Rudy Diaz was a cameraman, editor and producer at Univision, where he won three Emmys for his work. Despite his professional success, however, Diaz says he didn’t feel fulfilled.

“I decided I wanted to do something greater than that, something that I could make a difference with children,” he said. “I came from the industry and I’m a perfect example of someone that maybe was making more money and I decided to go into teaching because I find it so rewarding.”

Diaz has been teaching for close to 30 years and has spent most of his career as a TV production teacher at South Miami Senior High. Diaz’s classroom includes a TV news studio, from which his students live-stream a daily broadcast. He and his students are constantly experimenting with new technology, and have even built some of it themselves, including drones. They are currently working on a virtual reality documentary on the Holocaust.

“What I love to do is bring new technology to the students and always be at the forefront of technology,” he said. Diaz’s passion for experimenting with technology is something he transmits to his students. “I bring the excitement into the class and they also get excited,” he said.

Diaz’s classes aren’t just about learning video production skills. Diaz also tries to give his students life lessons. They talk about values and about teenage hazards like texting and driving. “We are almost like a family,” he said. “The same advice I would give to my actual kids, I give to them.”

South Region: Laura Ortiz, Robert Morgan Educational Center & Technical College

Laura Ortiz has wanted to be a teacher since she was 5 years old. Always a quick learner, she would help her kindergarten classmates when they fell behind at school.

“I had my mom paint a chalkboard in my bedroom and I forced my sisters to learn during the summer,” she said. “I’ve been in this, in my mind, since kindergarten.”

Ortiz has been an official teacher for 15 years. She teaches AP European history, honors world history and AP human geography to ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders at Robert Morgan Educational Center. Ortiz has also taken on a host of other responsibilities at her school, including leading a new community service program, designing an app to help students stay on top of graduation requirements, and helping train new teachers to use technology in the classroom.

“I love my job so much, I don’t know how to say no,” she said.

Ortiz strives to make history relatable, using modern examples to help students grasp the material. For a lesson on the history of slavery, for example, Ortiz discussed modern human-trafficking with her class. “I think everything must be relevant to their own lives,” she said.

Ortiz has inspired two of her younger sisters to go into teaching. Both are new to the profession and often call Ortiz for teaching advice, which she is happy to share. Even after 15 years, Ortiz is still enthusiastic about education.

“You always have to find your passion first and focus on why you’re in the job and not get bogged down by all the paperwork, rules and testing,” she said.

Alternative Education: Alfreida Dianne Joseph-Goins, Dorothy M. Wallace C.O.P.E. Center

Alfreida Joseph-Goins was a senior in high school when she got pregnant, and as a young mom, she dealt with both societal stigmas and the challenges of going to college with a young child. After completing a degree in science and getting her master’s degree in education, Joseph-Goins decided she wanted to help other young mothers. So in 1995, she got a job as a science teacher at the Dorothy M. Wallace C.O.P.E. Center, a school for teenage parents. She has been there ever since.

“My purpose is to help them understand that it is attainable, it is achievable,” she said. “They can be successful. They just have to have the support.”

Joseph-Goins teaches biology, physical science, chemistry and anatomy and physiology, and she leads the school’s health science academy. She hopes that even if her students don’t pursue a career in science, they will still be able to use what they’ve learned in class. “My goal is to have students, not necessarily love science like I do, but at least leave with a different perspective on how it shapes our daily lives,” she said.

At the C.O.P.E. Center, students come to school with their babies and leave them in childcare while students are in class. Many of the students struggle with adult responsibilities and difficult family situations, which Joseph-Goins said often impact their academic performance. “It’s a challenge sometimes because those influences affect what happens in school,” she said. But when Joseph-Goins sees her students connect with the material, or when a student comes back after graduation to thank her, she said, “those are the moments that drive me.”