There are more than 20,000 teachers in Miami-Dade County public schools — but only one can be the teacher of the year.
The field is down to four finalists who boast almost 50 years of classroom experience between them.
The 2017 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year will be announced at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport & Convention Center. The event, when the Rookie Teacher of the Year will also be named, will be held at 711 NW 72nd Ave. in Miami.
Miami-Dade’s winner will go on to compete for the state title, which is usually announced in May in Orlando.
Here is a look at each of the finalists.
GINA GRAHAM-CLARK, JUVENILE JUSTICE CENTER SCHOOL
Gina Graham-Clark’s language arts classroom looks like any other. There is an electronic smart board and rows of computers. Exemplary student work lines the walls.
One thing stands out: the constant presence of a police officer.
Graham-Clark teaches middle school boys at the Juvenile Justice Center School. Her students have been charged with all sorts of crimes — from the petty to the violent. But the 16-year teacher chooses to look at the bright side.
“I have a captive audience,” she said. “That’s just an opportunity for me to build a love for reading.”
Graham-Clark does that through the mobile library she helped start, and the promise of a set of books all their own for each student who makes academic strides or improves their behavior. She also does it through rap.
“I try to be relevant,” Graham-Clark said.
When the designated curriculum called for students to learn about narrative poems through a work by Bob Dylan, Graham-Clark backed into it. First, she played Slick Rick’s 1980’s hip hop song, Children’s Story. It tells the tale of two boys who go on a robbing spree. One ends up shot dead by cops.
“Once we did that and we had buy-in with something a little more modern and that they recognize ... they’re like, ‘Ok. I got this,’” Graham-Clark said.
She often approaches teaching with such enthusiasm that her students ask her how many cups of coffee she’s had. Graham-Clark said she’s not one for caffeine. She just loves her job.
“I feel a sense of obligation to show these students their potential,” she said. “They’re going to come back to our community, and we want them to come back right.”
LEMA GILLIARD, MEDICAL ACADEMY FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Students who walk into Lema Gilliard’s biomedical sciences class at MAST@Homestead find a murder victim.
How did she die? What was her last meal? It’s up to the students, using sophisticated lab equipment, to do the detective work and find out. That may mean analyzing blood splatters or stomach contents — any clues left behind.
“I created some nice vomit for them. They enjoy that,” Gilliard said. “I make it really hands-on.”
Gilliard says teaching is in her blood. Both of her parents taught for 30 years in Dade schools, and her sister is in the classroom, too. But Gilliard didn’t always want to be a teacher.
“I was going to be the doctor” of the family, she said.
That changed after her first, graphic clinical internship at Medical University of South Carolina at Charleston — followed by a lonely stint in research labs “doing experimentation after experimentation.”
Now, she helps high schoolers launch their own medical careers at a magnet school that is nationally ranked for its success in helping low-income students succeed. Gilliard teaches a national curriculum that requires instructors to take dozens of hours of rigorous training. She has been instrumental in forging partnerships with Florida International University that allow students to participate in virtual labs with mannequin patients and even “suit up” to observe real surgeries.
This school year, Gilliard helped launch an in-school diagnostic lab where students can learn to draw blood and perform CPR.
“You have to meet the needs of your students,” she said. “It is up to us to be able to provide that engaging lesson for them to explore.”
MICHELLE KELLY, MIAMI SPRINGS SENIOR HIGH
For Michelle Kelly, teaching is a process of constant improvement.
When she first started in the classroom 13 years ago, Kelly taught some of the neediest students – the emotionally disturbed and learning delayed. She took a 180-degree turn about three years ago when she picked up Advanced Placement courses in psychology and human geography at Miami Springs Senior High.
“When I got to Advanced Placement, I really thought they had all the skills they needed. I thought all I needed to do was teach content,” she said.
Not so. The majority of her students ended up bombing end-of the year tests for college credit.
“I was devastated,” Kelly said.
She laid out all the data she had about her students scores to zero-in on where she went wrong: the kids were struggling with writing. She retooled her approach, explicitly teaching how to write in the style test-graders were looking for and encouraging students to grade each other’s essays.
“That has been my number one key to success,” she said. “You own the writing when you have to grade someone else’s (essay) and give them an explanation why they got a point or not.”
Now, her students pass their AP exams at higher rates than the national average: 72 percent of her students pass psychology and 63 percent pass human geography, Kelly said. But Kelly isn’t resting on her students’ high test scores. Now she’s experimenting with new teaching models and seeking out online resources on her own to make it work.
“I take every teaching experience as a challenge. Can I do it? Can I be successful? Can I teach them in a different way? I love that,” said Kelley, who’s also the proud mom of two boys, Bobby and Timmy.
PRECIOUS T. SYMONETTE, MIAMI NORLAND SENIOR HIGH
There is often a line of students waiting to get into Precious T. Symonette’s creative writing class at Miami Norland high school.
They are all waiting for their daily hug. Some refuse to cross the threshold until they get it.
“I love having that relationship with my students because I know that some of them, they may need it,” Symonette said.
All her life, Symonette has had two loves: teaching and writing. As a child she remembers dressing up in her mother’s clothes and playing teacher to rows of stuffed animals. In college, she majored in writing and spent time as a travel writer before landing in the classroom full time. Symonette has been teaching for a decade now.
“I was born to teach,” she said.
Symonette is not afraid to say she loves her students, who often come from difficult backgrounds. It takes time to build that bond but she does it through writing – poetry, novels, short stories and spoken word competitions. She encourages students to explore the hard issues in their lives — gang violence, mental illness, stereotypes — through their work.
“I allow my students to write themselves into existence in my class,” she said.
It is not always easy to for students to find their voice. Many are convinced they just can’t write or that it’s no fun.
“When students first came to my class they hate writing because I think it’s the experience they’ve had throughout school. Unfortunately, it’s been used as punishment. Unfortunately, they only get to write essays because they have to pass assessments,” Symonette said. “Kids need the opportunity to be creative. They need to remember what it’s like to imagine something.”
Once a month, her students perform spoken word competitions while their classmates watch. Symonette said it helps build a sense of community within the school, and empowers those same students who once struggled with writing.
“When I saw them take the microphone for the first time, I saw them truly change to someone else,” she said. “They didn’t want to put the microphone down. For the first time, they had a voice.”