Dwyer awards: Six teachers honored for excellence in education

Teaching television production to students whose disorders drive them to avoid eye contact or decline public speaking may sound counterproductive, but Alicia Laurence-Bersch figures her job is to turn seeming impossibilities into achievements.

Laurence-Bersch’s success in that conversion has paid off repeatedly for her students at Indian Ridge School in West Palm Beach.

Tuesday night, they paid off for her as well, when she was named one of six winners of the 2018 William T. Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education at a ceremony at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

The Dwyer Awards, now in their 34th year, are organized by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County. Teachers are nominated by their colleagues at each school. Panels of volunteer judges then whittle the list to five finalists, including one winner, in each of six categories. Winners receive $3,000, while finalists get $500.

With 96 years of teaching among them, Tuesday’s winners have hooked students with lessons employing everything from homemade Play-Doh to 3-D printers. They have pioneered schoolwide recycling efforts and showed up on Saturday morning to greet college entrance exam takers armed with pencils and snacks for all. They have shared what worked and picked apart what didn’t with their colleagues and the profession’s up-and-comers.

Each came to the job with purpose and ambition that has roots in their classrooms but reaches far beyond.

With a recovering drug addict for a mom and a convicted murderer for a dad, Palm Beach County native Porschia Shelton said she decided early on to be like the teachers who invested in her when she was in school.

A social studies teacher at Okeeheelee Middle, Shelton put a dent in tardiness by beginning each class reading from a novel about an 11-year-old Pakistani girl who stands up to the Taliban and survives being shot by them.

Everyone arrived to class on time because no one wanted to miss hearing Shelton read the next installment, she said in her application. The conversations that followed allowed students to talk about the violence they saw in their own neighborhoods, or feelings of helplessness they sometimes had as children.

The county’s Science, Math and Technology Dwyer winner, Independence Middle’s Susan Russo takes students out into the world, from Sanibel Island to the Solid Waste Authority, to give her lessons context. Closer to home, she asks them to build paper roller coasters and Rube Goldberg machines. They code, design, analyze and learn when things go wrong — and they will go wrong, she said.

Russo turned to “The Last Jedi” and Master Yoda to convey her guiding principle:

“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

Though she quit teaching physical education years ago, Bridget Lutz’s fifth-grade reading students at Gove Elementary in Belle Glade still get a work out — literally. They learn reading through scavenger hunts and relays to build sentences. A state analysis of their test scores show the approach is working and now Lutz is part of a teacher corps that share their methods.

Community service is a hallmark of Meredith Abrams’ career. Her kindergarten and first grade gifted class have come together to build a recycling program, initiated book drives, food drives and even shoe drives at North Grade Elementary in Lake Worth.

In Fawn Tenenbaum’s 25 years, she’s taught debate to high schoolers and English to middle school honor students. But when she was handed the assignment to teach remedial English to seniors on the verge of not graduating at John I. Leonard, she feared she was being punished — administrators told her to expect no more than a quarter to pass and, therefore, graduate.

By year’s end, she got three-quarters of the students to the finish line and in the years since she’s worked with her fellow English teachers to hone the most effective tactics. One of those tactics: Be on campus with pencils and snacks for all when students take the SAT.

And when Tenenbaum had to turn away test-takers who weren’t her students, she was so pained she convinced the principal to cover costs of snacks for all students in the future.

“In no way is this brain surgery,” Tenenbaum wrote in her application. “This is about loving what you do and loving the people you serve.”

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