Oliver Diez thought his teaching career peaked when his fourth- and fifth-grade students were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York in March as the only elementary school band on the bill.
Actually, he was just getting started. The 43-year-old music teacher was named the 2020 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year on Thursday night, claiming the honor from among the 19,000 teachers of the Miami-Dade School District.
“Of all the concerts I’ve prepared for over the years,” Diez said in his acceptance speech, “you’re never prepared for something like this.”
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Diez has spent all two decades of his teaching career at Palmetto Elementary in southwest Miami-Dade, building a fledgling music program into the largest elementary school band in South Florida. He helped launch a booster club, now a registered nonprofit, for travel expenses for performances. More than a third of the school’s roughly 600 students are involved in the program.
Diez starts his students young, learning to play their introductory instrument, the recorder, in first grade. From there, they can join one of the many before- and after-school offerings at Palmetto Elementary: chorus, concert band, jazz combo, orchestra and drum line.
In his speech, Diez thanked his fellow finalists, including Ray L. Parris, 46, of Hialeah Miami-Lakes Senior High, who was the teacher of the year runner-up. He also compared the students’ learning process to a music rehearsal.
“It will be messy at times and mistakes will be made that will need fixing,” he said, “but in the end we need to unite our students to work together for that final performance.”
To bring his lesson to life, he instructed half the crowd to stomp and the other half to clap. Together, they created the beat to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
One of Diez’s former students was in the audience at the Teacher of the Year ceremony held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Thursday night. Christopher Fisk, his former student who is now 24, was named the runner-up rookie teacher of the year out of Miami Northwestern High School.
The crowned 2020 rookie teacher is another homegrown success. Laura Haim, 33, began her teaching career in Miami-Dade teaching math and science at the school she attended as a child: Pinecrest Elementary. Her mother is former Miami-Dade School Board member and former Pinecrest mayor Evelyn Greer.
As teacher of the year, Diez takes home more than $5,000, a gift basket and a new Toyota. He will advance to the state-level teacher of the year competition held in the summer.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Thursday night that he pledged $5,000 to the teacher of the year, $3,000 to the rookie teacher of the year and $500 to all finalists.