What makes a classroom click? Meet four great teachers who make it happen.

Teacher of the Year finalists on what makes a great teacher

Finalists for Teacher of the Year explain what makes a great teacher.
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Finalists for Teacher of the Year explain what makes a great teacher.

What’s the secret to being a great teacher?

The four finalists for Miami-Dade’s annual Teacher of the Year contest — chosen from the county’s roughly 18,000 public school teachers — have some ideas.

Inspiring students takes passion, hard work and perseverance, they said. Above all, a great teacher finds a way to connect with each child as an individual, not as a test score.

The winner of the 2019 Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year will be announced on Jan. 25 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 NW 72nd Ave. The winner will compete for the state title.

Here are the finalists:

North Region: Molly Winters Diallo, Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High

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Miami-Dade teacher of the year finalist Molly Winters Diallo from Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High on Jan. 12, 2018. PEDRO PORTAL

Molly Winters Diallo grew up in a family of teachers, so going into education “felt like it was the natural route to take,” she said.

Her first teaching job was at a private school in the British Virgin Islands. In the early 2000s, Winters Diallo moved to Miami because she wanted to teach in the Haitian community. She spent five years at Miami Edison Senior High before transferring to Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High, where she teaches Advanced Placement Human Geography and Psychology and Honors U.S. History.

Winters Diallo said she encourages every student to take advanced classes, like the college-level Advanced Placement courses she teaches.

“I believe that regardless of students’ backgrounds, they should be able to take advanced coursework and they should see college as an attainable goal,” she said.

In 2016, Winters Diallo was selected as a Bezos Educator Scholar — one of 12 teachers chosen nationwide to participate in a leadership program funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, which was created by the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. As part of the program, Winters Diallo and a student created “Branch Out” at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High, an effort that brings together students from diverse backgrounds who might not ordinarily socialize. At one “Branch Out” event, students wore masks and wrote how society views them on the outside of the mask and how they view themselves on the inside.

“I try to create a welcoming environment for my students and a safe place,” Winters Diallo said. “I want my students to feel comfortable in my classroom and express themselves.”

Winters Diallo was excited to learn that one of her former students, Karen Fernandez, won rookie teacher of the year at Melrose Elementary School in Miami this year.

“This is coming full circle, and it’s a beautiful thing,” she said.

Central Region: Aaron Taylor, Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary

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Miami-Dade teacher of the year finalist Aaron Taylor from Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary on Jan. 12, 2018. PEDRO PORTAL

Aaron Taylor was working on a degree in criminal justice when he started substitute teaching to make some extra money. At the time, Taylor planned to join the FBI or the Secret Service after he finished his degree.

But Taylor quickly became a popular sub and before he knew it, he had a teaching gig lined up for every day of the week. After seeing him in action, one school principal encouraged Taylor to become a full-time teacher.

“It was like I had this gift,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”

Taylor went on to get two master’s degrees, one in educational leadership and one in special education, and certifications in gifted education and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

“You never know what kind of student you’re going to get so I try to prepare myself to deal with all types of students,” he said.

Taylor currently teaches fourth-grade reading and language arts at Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary. He also serves as the school’s site director for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentoring program for at-risk boys. Taylor participated in the program when he was a student at Miami Central Senior High and said it had a positive impact on his life. Now, he’s planning college tours for the students he mentors.

Taylor said it’s important to show each child in his class that he cares about them. He makes a point of eating lunch with his students — and not talking about schoolwork.

“They’re not just a test score,” he said. When a student knows his or her teacher cares, “everything else follows.”

South Region: Katina Perry-Birts, Florida City Elementary

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Miami-Dade teacher of the year finalist Katina Perry-Birts from Florida City Elementary on Jan. 12, 2018. PEDRO PORTAL

Katina Perry-Birts didn’t set out to be a teacher, but an experience volunteering in her son’s kindergarten class sparked an interest in education.

 ‘Hey, I can do this and impact the students,’ ” she remembers thinking. “It reminded me what I learned at an early age about the power of education.”

That was roughly 20 years ago. Perry-Birts first worked as a substitute teacher for five years before completing her education degree in 2005. Then she got a job at Florida City Elementary, where she has taught ever since.

Many of her fourth-grade students face significant challenges at home, Perry-Birts said. More than 95 percent of the children at Florida City Elementary are low-income. Perry-Birts said she tries to instill in her students the power of change and teach them that they don’t have to be a product of their environment.

In her classroom, the mantra is a Muhammad Ali quote: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”

“I embed that in my students,” Perry-Birts said. “I tell my kids that on a daily basis.”

She also works with Real Men Read, a national program that recruits men from the community to read to students. Recent guests at Florida City Elementary included a congressional staffer and a clergyman.

For Perry-Birts, teaching isn’t just about learning gains. She also tries to develop a personal connection with her students.

“You’ve got to have a heart and a passion for the kids,” she said. “You have to have that passion and if you have that passion, you can motivate them.”

Alternative Education: Judy Rodriguez, C.O.P.E. Center North

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Miami-Dade teacher of the year finalist Judy Rodriguez from C.O.P.E. Center North on Jan. 12, 2018. PEDRO PORTAL

Judy Rodriguez’s previous job could not have been more different. Before she became a Miami-Dade teacher, Rodriguez worked in the pharmaceutical industry as a quality assurance auditor, ensuring that batches of medication were safe to release.

Then Rodriguez had a son and her whole world changed. When she started looking for a daycare, she came to a frightening realization.

“It was like an awakening for me that I was going to have to trust somebody with my child,” she said.

Rodriguez started teaching business part time for an adult education program before becoming a full-time business teacher at Miami Northwestern Senior High. Along the way, she’s carried that realization with her. “I’ve always tried to treat my students as I would want my son to be treated,” she said.

For the past eight years, Rodriguez has taught at C.O.P.E. Center North, a school that serves teen moms and pregnant teens. She currently teaches entrepreneurship, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and on-the-job training.

“It’s extremely challenging, but it’s extremely rewarding because you’re impacting two generations simultaneously,” she said.

The best part about her job, she added, is “when you ignite their fire for learning.”

One of her students, a teen mom with a baby, recently traveled to New York to compete in a national business plan competition. When the student placed 12th, Rodriguez was worried that she would feel discouraged. But the experience had the opposite effect.

“Miss, so now what’s next? ‘Shark Tank?’ ” she asked Rodriguez after the contest, referring to the entrepreneurship TV show.

“My heart was full because she got it,” Rodriguez said. “There’s always something next.”