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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 obv