Five teachers were pleasantly surprised to learn that they are finalists for Duval County's Teacher of the Year during surprise announcements at their school.

The finalists are Sarah Pasion at Sadie Tillis Elementary, Nakeisha Tinsley at Matthew Gilbert Middle, Danisha Love at Raines High, Rachel Duff at DuPont Middle, and Joshua Diaz at Hogan-Spring Glen Elementary.

One of the finalists will be named the Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year at the 28th Annual EDDY Awards February 15, at the Hyatt Regency. The winner will then compete for the Florida Teacher of the Year title.

The Duval finalists' letters of nomination and application essays tell stories of inspiration and dedication to teaching.

Joshua Diaz is a fifth-year math teacher who last year added science to his repertoire at Hogan-Spring Glen Elementary. Colleagues said he excels at convincing students they can achieve in his classroom, even if they are struggling.

For example, Diaz believed in and encouraged a student last year who had a history of not trying and falling below grade level, wrote Natalya Richie, assistant principal at Brentwood Elementary in her nomination letter.

"With a firm and consistent approach, Mr. Diaz planned strategic and differentiated instruction that was tailored with this student in mind," she wrote. "Mr. Diaz would not waiver on his expectations and maintained a belief that this student would succeed. As a result this student made significant growth academically and socially."

Diaz helps other teachers become high-performing teachers, wrote Verlina Mobley, another Hogan-Spring Glen teacher. He also helped establish the student council allowing children to lead and perform community service.

"Mr. Diaz is an over-comer, problem solver, innovator and dynamic member of our staff," wrote Principal Charlene T. James, noting that about 80 percent of his math and science students were proficient, according to state tests.

Rachel Duff teaches reading and language arts to English language learners at DuPont Middle school. She said she was inspired to become a teacher after spending three months teaching in Guyana after high school and later working as a children's program assistant at the Sulzbacher Center.

"I was able to work intimately with children during some of their most vulnerable times ... and to see the resilience and joy they portrayed is something that will always stay with me," she wrote in her application.

Many of her students are refugees or immigrants, and colleagues say they know she cares about them. Students say her classroom is welcoming, with soft lamps, plants and a reading nook.

"I have been in her class for one year and now I speak English very well," wrote Maria Kasieh, a student. "This makes me happy because I feel like I fit in at my new school and my new country."

Duff believes in bringing guests from the community to talk to students about their lives as immigrants and their careers. Class guests included an author from Cuba, an architect from Syria, a lawyer from Afghanistan, an engineer from Puerto Rico and a Netflix lawyer from Pakistan, who Skyped with her class.

She also voluntarily hosts parents in Saturday English classes and helps coach the boys' soccer team, her principal said.

Danisha Love teaches math at Raines High School, including classes of algebra 1, which include a statewide exam students must pass to graduate. Her class passing rate is 67 percent.

Love said she tries to pour positivity into students who struggle with confidence and motivation.

"Realizing one of the most difficult students to teach is the one who lacks confidence or a reason to learn, I knew exposing kids to the value of education was necessary for them to see that not only could they achieve better, but they deserved better even if it wasn't easy," Love wrote in her application.

Principal Vincent Hall said "her students have become confident thinkers and speakers of algebra."

Da'vionna Mason, a former student, said that at first she thought Love's expectations and positive attitude were a turn-off; she tried unsuccessfully to change classes. But Love soon grew on her and became her favorite teacher, Da'vionna wrote in a nominating letter.

"Her expectations of standards and student work were so high, but she continued to push us to new levels," Da'vionna wrote.

"Sometimes I thought she just wanted to be aggravating, but if Ms. Love had not actually believed we could do more my classmates and I would not have passed our (Florida Standards Assessment). Ms. Love made sure everybody understood the material whether during class or tutoring after school. I took her dedication for granted but can now look back and see that she cared so much."

Love also is involved as a mentor and guide with the school's Sister Scholars, a student group which emphasizes scholarship, community service and sisterly support. Vincent said she is more than a teacher; she is a social worker, mentor, friend and auntie to her students.

Sarah Pasion teaches math and science to fourth-graders at Sadie Tillis Elementary. She wrote in her application essay about growing up in a poor family in the Philippines where her aunt, a teacher, helped her parents buy her school books and inspired her to continue into education. Her aunt convinced her that education was a kind of wealth that no one can take away, she said.

An instructor who over 15 years has worked in nearly every elementary grade, Pasion said she uses "productive talk" among students to get them discussing math together and evaluating each other's understanding.

Lilian Munoz, a fourth-grader, wrote in a letter that Pasion works with students who struggle in math and she fosters a respectful class.

"She makes sure we do not rush through our work and use (Read, Draw and Write) in solving the problem," Lilian wrote. "We should not forget to assess the reasonableness of our answer."

Also Pasion "never sends bad kids to the office," Lilian wrote. "She tells them to stop, think and reflect and change their behavior or do they want reward or consequence. She teaches them how to be good."

Pasion has lead the Ninja Math Club of teachers, the student Asian Club, and this year got involved in school leadership with youth mental health first-aid training, said Principal Angela L. Jordan.

Nakeisha Tinsley has taught for 23 years at Matthew Gilbert Middle school, most recently health and physical education, but she also has taught science and language arts, wherever she was needed. Principal Jamelle Wilcox Goodwin said Tinsley was nervous about teaching sixth-grade science, but her science class was considered a model classroom.

Tinsley also has coached a variety of sports, including basketball, volleyball, soccer and softball and was the school's first female athletic director.

Tinsley's colleagues said she tries to inspire her students beyond the gymnasium, teaching them how to minimize personal conflicts, stay in control of emotions, and make wise choices.

Students in her health classes have fewer behavior referrals and conflicts after taking her class, she said. And Goodwin said she is particularly successful in helping girls through restorative practices instead of discipline.

Tinsley's colleagues say she is a role model to other teachers and some administrators. Darryl White II, now an assistant principal, said that from his first day teaching, Tinsley took him under her wing.

"I am now an assistant principal and it is partly due to the role that Coach Tinsley has played in my life," he said.

"It's safe to say she is the heart and soul of Matthew Gilbert. Just ask the generations she's taught, coached and developed over the years."

Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083