From the moment they set foot in her classroom, Molly Winters Diallo’s students are told that they’re going to college and that she’s going to help them get there.
For many teens at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High — where students come from 66 different countries and speak more than a dozen languages — that message makes all the difference.
“For students like me whose parents are immigrants, we had no idea how to do any of it,” said Karen Fernandez, a former student who now teaches at Melrose Elementary School in Allapattah. “Molly was that support for me to be able to attend a prestigious institution because I really didn’t have any insight into the process.”
In addition to teaching college-level geography and psychology courses, Winters Diallo helped Fernandez complete college applications, encouraged her to apply to top-tier schools and even convinced Fernandez’s parents to let their daughter go to school out-of-state. She was also there for the tough moments: When Fernandez didn’t get the scholarship she was banking on to pay for college, Winters Diallo comforted her as she cried in the hallway, then rallied the other teachers to write extra letters of recommendation and called the college’s admissions office.
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“I feel really grateful to have her in my life as a teacher but also as a friend and as a mentor,” Fernandez said.
Other students have similar stories about a gentle nudge and a word of encouragement that set them on the path to fulfilling their dreams. Winters Diallo pushed Benjamin Fridman to apply for a summer program at Yale, an experience he said he never would have sought out on his own and one that helped him get into an Ivy League college.
She also encouraged Faris Qubain to apply for a State Department summer program in Indonesia and collaborated with him on a proposal for a school program that won a grant from the Bezos Family Foundation.
“She really wants to get students to shine,” said Fridman. “For her it’s not about just teaching what she has to teach; she wants students to truly maximize their potential.”
Winters Diallo’s commitment to her students was recognized Thursday when she was named Miami-Dade County’s 2019 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year. The top spot comes with some perks: a new car from Kendall Toyota, $5,000 from Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the chance to compete for the state title.
Winters Diallo was one of four finalists chosen from more than 18,000 Miami-Dade public school teachers. Stephanie Pierre, a teacher at Miami Norland Senior High, was named Rookie Teacher of the Year.
The daughter of two teachers, Winters Diallo said education “felt like it was the natural route to take.” She grew up in Connecticut and started her teaching career at a private school in the British Virgin Islands. After getting a master’s degree from Tufts University, Winters Diallo moved to Miami in the early 2000s. She taught at Miami Edison Senior High for five years 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’s classes stand out because she manages to get everyone talking, Qubain said.
“Her teaching style was very open,” he said. “She taught in a way that would make the students want to pay attention, be active, do their homework, talk in class.”
The most important lesson was on the importance of investing in education, Fernandez said. “It’s not just to come in and listen to her, write this down, the bell rings and we leave. She was like, ‘What do you think? What do you want to learn? How can we change this to fit your needs?’ It was really impactful for me to have her as a teacher and realize, ‘This is what education should look like.’ ”
Winters Diallo’s bond with her students extends beyond high school. Fernandez kept in touch with the teacher throughout college and now calls whenever she needs teaching advice. Fridman and other former students give Winters Diallo periodic updates on their lives. And when former students come back to Miami, the first thing they do is stop by the high school to visit Winters Diallo’s classroom, said Adam Bernstein, a former student who now teaches at North Miami Beach Senior High.
“Obviously every teacher wants you to succeed, but she’s a cheerleader,” Bernstein said. “You know she’s rooting for your success and she wants you to be successful. She’s there to help you get to your goals.”