South Miami music teacher up for Grammy education award

South Miami K-8 school teacher Vivian Gonzalez directs some of the students in her music class after a visit from the group Lady Antebellum on Monday.
South Miami K-8 school teacher Vivian Gonzalez directs some of the students in her music class after a visit from the group Lady Antebellum on Monday. EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

Students in Ms. Gonzalez’s class speak of their band teacher in superlatives.

“I think she’s the nicest person in the world,” said 10-year-old fifth-grader Eva Gonzalez.

“She’s the best teacher,” said 10-year-old classmate Spencer Schneider.

For the second year in a row, South Miami K-8 Center teacher Vivian Gonzalez is also a semifinalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award — a national recognition that comes with $10,000 and a trip to Los Angeles.

Gonzalez runs the magnet music program, where she teaches third-, fourth- and fifth-graders how to play instruments like the steel drums, viola and mandolin in the only program of its kind in the nation, according to the school.

Though Gonzalez will have to wait to learn whether she’s won the Grammy award, on Monday she got some surprise recognition from a popular country music band.

Members of the group Lady Antebellum paid a short visit to the class as part of a promotion for their new album. The band donated instruments, including a signed guitar, and will fly Gonzalez and her family to New York for a concert on Tuesday.

Alfred Figueroa, Gonzalez’s husband, nominated her for the surprise.

“I basically told them that she’s a huge fan, and that she’s a really really dedicated and hard-working teacher who pretty much dedicates all of her spare time to her students. So it’s really hard for her to do anything for herself,” Figueroa said.

Though 10-year-old fifth-grader Branden Damus had never heard of Lady Antebellum before, he was excited to show off his cello-playing skills for swarming news cameras.

“I felt famous,” he said.

Gonzalez launched her career in music when she picked up a violin at age 5. By 10, Gonzalez had her solo debut with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida, which has since folded. Gonzalez credits her success in the arts to the teachers who gave her free lessons and instruments growing up.

“I came from a very poor home in Miami,” she said. “I’m born and raised here. My father was a Cuban exile and my mother was a teenaged mom. And my teachers were the ones who gave everything to me.”

Gonzalez’s students travel the state winning competitions. Her students have swept first, second and third place, and Grand Champion honors at the National Choral and Instrumental Festival for the past four years.

South Miami Principal Anamarie Moreira said the music teacher’s impact is widely felt in school.

“Because she builds their self esteem in this music classroom, those talents and that strength transfers into their academic class, and oftentimes they succeed there as well,” Moreira said.

Gonzalez stressed that she isn’t a one-woman show. Her husband is an ever-present volunteer.

“This magnet program doesn’t exist without my husband. He does the arrangements. He carts the instruments everywhere. He’s as much a part of the magnet as I am,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is working on her doctorate at Florida International University, focusing on music and exceptional student education. She wants to teach other educators how to encourage more kids with disabilities to participate in arts programs.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.