The Dwyer Awards, now in their 36th year, were awarded in an online ceremony over the Zoom video-conferencing app.
One teacher turned her classroom into a mini-version of the "Shark Tank" reality show. Another designed an outdoor classroom where pre-schoolers absorb physics and biology while playing.
A middle-school teacher organized international trips with her Spanish language students. An intensive-reading teacher placed her challenged students in the role of mentors, reading aloud to elementary students.
The seven winners of this year’s Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education distinguished themselves in different ways. But they all shared a willingness to re-imagine what teaching can be.
The Dwyer Awards, now in their 36th year, are usually a swanky event at the Kravis Center in downtown West Palm Beach. In a season of shuttered schools and virtual classrooms, they were awarded Tuesday in an online ceremony over the Zoom video-conferencing app.
The lack of spotlights and stagecraft didn’t seem to diminish enthusiasm as the winners accepted the awards in tearful speeches from their living rooms.
For Cheryl Shimmel, this year’s winner in the career education category, the recognition was a joyful contrast to the weeks she spent battling Covid-19 last month.
Touched by the outpouring of support her students showed as she lay bedridden and unable to teach, the Olympic Heights High teacher said the recognition deepened her appreciation of her bond with students.
"It truly touched my heart and was a blessing as a teacher," she said.
Shimmel, who teaches business and finance at Olympic Heights High, doesn’t let her relationship with students stop when they graduate.
In class, her students create and sell products, act as insurance agents and even make business pitches in the style of "Shark Tank" reality show.
Before the school year ends, she asks all of her students to write down their career goals. Four years later she sends them back to them, a reminder of their how much their ambitions changed or held constant.
"I receive many interesting replies telling me how many goals they accomplished and even the reasons why they might not have met specific goals," she said in her application for the award. "Receiving replies about how their time with me impacted them is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher."
Bak Middle School of the Arts teacher Christina Donnelly, winner in this year’s middle school education category, brings her Spanish lessons to life by having students play out the language by writing their own cooking shows, music videos and television scripts.
Then she goes a step further, taking children out of the classroom and into the Spanish-speaking world, organizing trips to Spanish-speaking nations where students could learn the language in its most authentic form.
"I’ve watched my students play in the snow in the mountains of Spain, learn to dance salsa in Puerto Rico, cook their own empanadas in Costa Rica and haggle in an open-air market in Ecuador," she wrote in her application. "I feel honored to have shared all of these lifetime firsts and will forever cherish the memories."
Not content to merely enliven her lessons, she extended them.
She persuaded the school district to let her teach two high school-level courses in middle school, an innovation that she calls one of her proudest achievements.
At Riviera Beach Preparatory and Achievement Academy, Sandra English, this year’s winner in the special programs category, oversaw an explosion in the number of her intensive-reading students passing the reading requirements to graduate.
At an alternative school where students face steep academic or behavioral challenges, English saw a way to give students a chance to serve as mentors. She set up a program with nearby West Riviera Elementary for her students to read one-on-one with young elementary students.
Setting an example for students was always top of mind, but even more so when a middle school student handed her a note years ago.
"Mrs. English," it read, "I have watched you all year and you have never disappointed me."
"I was stunned to realize that even when I didn’t know I was being watched, I most certainly was," she wrote in her application. "I made it my responsibility to always remember and live up to those words."
Now in their 36th year, the Dwyer Awards are organized by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County.
Teachers are nominated by each school and finalists and winners are selected by panels of volunteer judges. Winners receive $3,500, while finalists receive $500.
Winners of the 2020 Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education
Grow Up Great — Early Education
Elizabeth Grimes, Loxahatchee Groves Elementary School
Nikki Magnetico, The Weiss School
Middle School Education
Christina Donnelly, Bak Middle School of the Arts
Senior High Education
Meghan Shamdasani, SouthTech Academy
Heather Magill, Palm Springs Middle School
Cheryl Shimmel, Olympic Heights High School
Sandra English, Riviera Beach Preparatory and Achievement Academy