What do you love about what you do?
DS: What I love most about what I do is, as altruistic and cliché as it may seem, I truly feel deep down I am making a difference. Each year, I have 120 at-risk youth, ages 11-13, from all around the world, coming to me at the most crucial time for their young minds. I love making it my mission to empower them to empower themselves.
I love that my classroom is the world – a United Nations where not only do my children learn the English language, but the language of acceptance, compassion, trust, teamwork, friendship, independence, freedom of expression, and hard work. Most importantly, they learn who they are and see a glimpse of the greatness they are to become.
Fifteen years after becoming an educator in Florida, you are now your state’s Teacher of the Year. Out of the 189,000 nominees vying for this incredibly impressive honor, why do you think you earned it?
DS: It’s extremely hard for me to answer this as, contrary to my large presence (and mouth) wherever I go, I am not one to be able to see myself as any different than my colleagues. Perhaps that is why I earned it? In one of my interviews with members of the Florida Department of Education, I was asked why I feel I should be considered the Teacher of the Year. My answer was, like me, not typical.
I love making it my mission to empower my students to empower themselves.They learn who they are and see a glimpse of the greatness they are to become.
I told them in part, “Did you ever see the movie Gladiator with Russell Crow as Maximus? There is a scene where Caesar Marcus Aurelius, asks Maximus to be the next Emperor of Rome. Do you remember what he said? He said, ‘With all my heart, no.’ At that moment Caesar says, ‘That is why it must be you.’”
After seeing their reaction, I felt for the first time, maybe I do deserve this… a representative, a conduit, an Ambassador to the 192,000 teachers in Florida, all achieving great things in their classrooms.
So, after a long year process of two, 20 page nomination packets (consisting of essays on Philosophies of Teaching, Educational Issues of Today, Resumes, 6 Letters of Recommendations, Media Interview Questions, two videos of my teaching style), two 7-10 person Board Member interviews and a nomination by my Superintendent, and a final nomination by the Commissioner of Education, I can conclude using the words of my peers, the very teachers I will represent this year, “Your genuine happiness and your passion is infectious. What you do to not only teach but inspire young children is magical and rarely seen as so raw and pure. You are different, Dorina. The kids see it and respond to your uniqueness, and so do we. You are a perfect Ambassador for the Teaching Profession and for us. Now go do this!” My cup runneth over…
You are now representing teachers throughout the entire state of Florida. Are you still in “pinch me, am I dreaming?” mode or has the magnitude of your achievement sunk in?
DS: I was never in a “pinch me, am I dreaming?” mode. As a teacher, as many educators will agree, we have somewhat of a control issue. Strong classroom management creates a perfect environment for learning but it takes discipline to maintain that control. It carries to our personal life as well. So, like a soldier who assesses his surroundings, I was calm and truly “ready for the position” the day after the announcement.
That was, until two weeks ago where one quiet moment on a bench at Sea World next to the flamingos, I made that classic Robert DeNiro face, followed by an Elvis style raised eyebrow, and let out a big guffaw of nervous and emotional laughter. I covered my mouth, leaned over, literally lost my balance and fell off a cement bench. A woman helped me to my feet and asked, “Are you okay?” I replied with a nervous vibrato to my voice, “I just won Florida State Teacher of the Year!”
She congratulated me and, before I knew it, I was in utter tears embracing a retired music teacher from Wisconsin on holiday with the grandkids. She looked at me with such pride and respect that I truly felt the magnitude of my achievement. Incredible.
Your job is to educate children whose first language is not English. On average, how many different languages are being spoken in one of your classrooms?
DS: Although the largest amount has been eleven, on average it’s seven. What is important to further explain is how I could have three students from one country speaking three different languages. One of the hardest things to explain to students and teachers, is that just because a student is from Mexico, for example, it doesn’t mean they speak Spanish. This year, my Mexican children spoke Spanish, Nahuatl and Yucatec Maya. My sweethearts from Vietnam tried their best to communicate in Vietnamese but one little girl only spoke Jarai.
These misconceptions can greatly affect a child’s learning both socially and academically. We need to expand our knowledge of each child’s culture. Language to me, is culture, therefore, we have a lot to learn about our children before we begin teaching them. This is where I make a Common Core lesson out of it for students to have a better understanding of their peers and the countries from where they come. I also love doing professional development for teachers on cultural competency and linguistics as it opens windows, doors, vents, and chimneys to the improvement of understanding our children who left their world to come to a new one.