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Learning from the 2018 Finalists' Classrooms, Part I

This blog series is going to be a blast! I am visiting the classrooms of some amazing teachers, the other four 2018 Florida Teacher of the Year finalists. The five of us, Diego Fuentes, Vanessa Ko, Kate Fiori, Mike Miller and I instantly became the best of friends and devoted colleagues during our time spent together during the interview process and TOY roundtable week last summer. I have great respect and admiration for each of them, and I am so excited to see these superior teachers in action and learn from their expertise! They have many instructional strengths to observe, and I plan to share some of them with you. So, please read the blog posts and #LearnWithMe as I travel to the finalists’ schools and see the great work they are doing.

First Visit: Diego Fuentes, Hillcrest School, Ocala - Hillcrest School provides specialized educational and training programs for 184 students with moderate to profound mental disabilities and students exhibiting autism spectrum disorders. Students receive speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. The school is absolutely spotless, and every bulletin board is beautifully decorated. I was particularly impressed with the joyful spirit and smiles exuding from every staff member.

Diego is the music teacher for the school. He actually created the music program, and this is only his second year teaching music full-time. He previously taught self-contained classes for primarily autistic students where he infused music into his instruction. The strengths that I would like to share are his emphasis on individualized instruction and close healthy relationships with his students. Diego knows his students personally. He understands their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and needed accommodations. As the students entered the classroom, I watched him talk to each one with personal conversation and each responded with smiles and enthusiastic sounds. He hand-picked instruments for his students to play and included special songs for each student during class. He even writes songs for individual students to meet their academic needs as well as match their interests. It was obvious to see Diego truly loves all his students and sees beyond his students’ disabilities to see their abilities. Diego has helped students exceed expectations. One non-verbal student spoke for the first time in music class. Diego was singing a song with the class which he wrote that included the lyrics, “clap your hands and stomp your feet.” As he ended the song, he heard the student say, “stomp your feet.” Diego told me he was so moved that he could hardly continue teaching class. That speaks to Diego’s heart. His passion for reaching and teaching every student seems second to none.


I believe that passion is spurred by his own education story. Diego was a troubled youth who spent most of his time in the dean’s office. By his sophomore year in high school, the dean gave him two options: drop out or get expelled. He dropped out. But a new dean came to his school and called him during the summer. The new dean, Mr. Flynn, had looked at his many referrals and his academic history. He noticed that Diego took responsibility for his actions and his test scores were quite high, especially considering the many suspension days he was not in school. Mr. Flynn saw great potential in Diego. Not only did he welcome him back, but he mentored him academically and personally. He took the time to get to know Diego. He soon learned that Diego’s dad had passed away a year prior, and the family’s home had burned down not long afterwards. He realized that Diego and his family were homeless and hungry. Mr. Flynn shared food, money, and much encouragement with Diego. He believed in Diego’s future and he helped Diego believe in himself. Diego went on to not only raise his GPS but also to earn a full university scholarship. Diego told me he aspires to be like Mr. Flynn, “to always look a little deeper when things appear dire and never give up on a student.” Diego is grateful for the personal attention that Mr. Flynn gave him, and he seeks to give everyone of his students that personal attention and individualized instruction.

All teachers need to differentiate instruction to ensure that every student maximizes his growth. With individualized or differentiated instruction, the teacher recognizes the uniqueness of each learner and provides instruction and support in a way that matches a student’s academic readiness, learning modality, and personal interests. Carol Ann Tomlinson identifies three elements to differentiate: content, process, and product. First, content standards must be determined and students must be pre-tested. If a student is already proficient in some portions of the content, that student can move on to the content needed to learn or work independently to complete tasks or projects. Teachers should keep high expectations of content mastery, but they can adjust the access to the material and complexity levels to meet the diversity of the learners. For example, some students may need texts at different reading levels, reading partners, groups, computer programs, videos, audio recorders, demonstrations, or reteaching to learn the material. Second, teachers need to give students different paths to process the content. Some may need manipulatives, graphic organizers, specialized assignments, learning equipment, diagrams, charts, experiments, or projects to vary the learning activity to help student explore and understand the standards-based material. Third, teachers can individualize products. A product can be a creating a cartoon, writing a letter, making a portfolio, completing a unit test, producing a project, or creating a video. The possibilities are endless. But an effective product must cause students to think critically and apply their mastery of content.


Yet, I have found that no matter how instruction is given, it is positive healthy relationships between teachers and students that make the profound difference. Research shows that students with strong bonds with their teacher perform better than students who have conflicts with their teachers. When students know their teacher cares about both their academic success and personal lives, students want to do their best and they grow in self-confidence and self-worth. Another advantage of good relationships is less class disruptions. There are fewer behavior issues in classrooms where genuine teacher-student relationships exist.

Special thanks to Diego for allowing me to share his story and for being so inspirational to me. I will forever cherish the time spent in his classroom watching him make miracles happen. I will be visiting Vanessa Ko’s middle school mathematics class next. I know I will be learning and I hope you will continue to #LearnWithMe as I visit the other finalists’ classrooms.

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