WEST PALM BEACH — Another challenging year for educators culminated in collective celebration Tuesday evening as the Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education were presented in person for the first time in two years.
Seven teachers rose to the top of a field of 28 finalists.
The best of the best represent Royal Palm Beach Elementary School, Palm Beach Gardens Elementary, Palm Beach Day Academy, Boynton Beach High School, Watson B. Duncan Middle School, Crosspointe Elementary School and Royal Palm School.
From 2021:Seven teachers – 4 in the Glades – earn coveted Dwyer Award
From 2020:Dwyer Awards: Top PBC teachers recognized for passion, innovation in the classroom
Since 2019:Dwyer Awards: 6 top teachers in Palm Beach County take a bow
Here are the winners of the 2022 Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education:
Early Learning Education: Barbara Boehringer
Barbara Boehringer’s pre-kindergarten classroom at Palm Beach Gardens Elementary isn’t just filled with instruction and activities, it’s also a microcosm of life.
Students complete classroom jobs on a rotating basis, and prior to the pandemic she put on pumpkin carving and tea parties with students’ parents and guardians, a December holiday show and led fun experiments like leaf rubbing. Last year, many of those activities transitioned to Zoom.
Boehringer aims to make all of her young students feel part of a family so they can learn to be good students and friends to one another.
“Young children are eager and able to learn an unlimited amount when they are in a safe, supportive and loving environment,” she said. “My goal is to make school a fun, engaging place where every child can learn, play and grow, and feel valued as a unique individual.”
Elementary Education: Katherine Kovalsky
When Katherine Kovalsky teaches music classes at Royal Palm Beach Elementary School, she looks for ways to connect it to what her students are learning elsewhere at school.
That means pivoting to teach historical African-American spirituals as her young students learn about the Underground Railroad and finding online music composition software to share when classes go virtual.
Kovalsky is also recognized for her efforts to grow the school’s music programs. In her first year teaching at Royal Palm Beach Elementary, she encouraged students to join the after-school chorus and the club grew from 20 to 60 students. She also started the school’s first hand-bell ensemble with 12 fifth-grade students.
She said she believes music cannot exist without intentional human activity, and as such, “the goal of music education should be to teach people to do music through actions such as playing instruments, signing, dancing and moving, composing, improvising, and listening. “
Middle School Education: Annette Johnson
Annette Johnson’s students at Palm Beach Day Academy were devastated last year when they learned their musical was to be canceled due to COVID-19. But their music teacher knew the show had to go on.
She adjusted the production so it could be presented virtually — a feat characteristic of how music education has evolved since she started teaching in 1987.
Johnson is recognized for her quick thinking, which helped her adapt to school in COVID times: She created music escape rooms, an interactive online classroom based on students’ Bitmoji characters, a ukulele curriculum and a four-part Acapella application project for students.
“It is my firm belief that whether we are using distance learning, social distance learning or the hybrid model that every child should have a sense of normalcy, their best education, and be able to utilize their talents to the fullest,” she wrote in from application.
Senior High Education: Geri Grocki
After working as a teacher for 40 years, Geri Grocki broke her Susan Lucci-streak and was recognized for her excellence in her final year in education.
Inside her AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classes at Boynton Beach High School, Grocki prides herself on helping her students develop “soft skills” she thinks are often overlooked in schools.
In 2010, she established the Education Rock Leadership Program that connects students here with sponsors and students abroad through letter writing. Sponsors make it possible for students in other countries to attend school while the students in Education Rocks learn about another culture and perspective on education.
For Grocki, she believes she’s touched so many lives because her students know they can trust her.
“I gain the trust of my students so they can relax and confide in me with hope and honesty,” she said in her application. “My commitment is for every student to know that I care about them and their futures.”
Special Programs: John Miller
For John Miller, teaching students at Watson B. Duncan Middle School with autism is personal.
He draws on his own diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder to relate and acknowledge how learning is different for his students from their neurotypical peers. This means encouraging students to believe in their abilities and modeling how to participate in a discussion when students may struggle to get their thoughts out verbally.
Miller works with other teachers at Duncan to make their programs more accessible to students with autism and advocates throughout the school on behalf of compassion and understanding for students who are neurodivergent.
“Living with autism has enabled me to be a role model to my students,” Miller wrote in his application. “They see that just because a person lives with autism doesn’t mean they cannot have a profession and a full life.”
STEM Education: Scott Lehman
Students at Crosspointe Elementary aren’t just doing arithmetic. Thanks to Scott Lehman, they’re learning how to build robots, use 3D printers and incorporate technology into their learning style.
STEM is a way of life, and Lehman helps his students see how the subjects intertwine with everything they do.
“It gives students a belief in their abilities, a passion to grow and really drives their curiosity with STEM,” he said. “The STEM skills I provide at this level will equip the students to tackle the challenges they will face as they move up to middle and high school and into the real world.”
Lehman was recognized for his leadership at the school and his vision to incorporate STEM into all school programs and activities to serve students’ passion for discovery.
Student Advancement and Career Education: Jill Williams
Jill Williams wants her students to take what they learn from her as a speech language pathologist and extend it beyond what they’re doing in school. That’s why she started a program called “Let’s Get Takeout,” which addresses an anxiety-inducing realm of life in the real world with communication challenges: Ordering food or communicating with customer service.
There, students greet customers, clarify messages, prepare orders using realistic pictures of food and use politeness markers expected in a professional setting.
Williams is known for her longtime Canine Companion for Independence, a Golden Labrador Retriever named Kuda, who accompanied her at school several days per week for eight years. She’s always seeking out new ways to connect with and ease students in her classes.
“My heart and professional focus have always led me to settings where I have had the opportunity to work with our most significantly challenged learners,” she wrote in her application. “My philosophy? Never stop looking for a new challenge.”
Katherine Kokal is a journalist covering northern Palm Beach County at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at email@example.com. Help support our work, subscribe today!