Although to Jen, receiving a big award is nothing compared to the tiny joys she sees from her incredible students every day. This place doesn’t feel like school—it’s more like home.
Being named the Golden Apple Teacher of the Year was not a one-night event for Jennifer Greco. The celebration spilled over into the following Monday at Hillcrest School, where Greco, 30, is a special education teacher.
“The other teachers decorated my classroom and the hallways,” says Greco, who prefers to be called Jen. “It was pretty much a party day at the school. We really are a family at Hillcrest and we celebrate everyone’s achievements, faculty and students, as a group.”
And when one of Greco’s seven students meets a goal or achieves a new task, celebration is well-deserved. Each of her students is physically and mentally disabled, giving Greco a unique perspective on her responsibilities as a teacher.
“The success and happiness of my students is my top priority,” she says. “It is my responsibility to assure that my students are motivated, encouraged, supported, and rewarded.”
Being a teacher comes with a variety of challenges. Being a special education teacher increases those challenges ten-fold.
“Almost all of my students are non-verbal and this makes it impossible for them to communicate in typical ways,” she says.
This forces Greco to measure a student’s success a bit differently than your average teacher.
“When one of my students answers a question correctly for the first time, I know he has learned,” she says. “When one of my students can walk a few steps on his own, I know he is improving. When I see one of my students socializing with his peers or communicating a need, that is a success.”
Greg Harrell, who served as the chairman of the Golden Apple selection committee, witnessed firsthand what Greco deals with daily.
“Observing Jennifer and being in her classroom was awe-inspiring,” says Harrell. “She and her students have to deal with difficult obstacles on a daily basis, and to watch her handle it with such bravado and creativity was truly humbling.”
Those obstacles keep Greco energized and she relishes the challenge of finding the best way to connect with her students.
“In all aspects of my classroom, technology is used,” says Greco, who has a bachelor’s in English from the University of South Florida. “A student can use an adapted bent spoon with an enlarged handle to eat more effectively. Another student uses assisted walking equipment to walk for the first time.”
Even teaching literacy takes on a very different style in Greco’s classroom. To teach words or concepts, she uses symbols with text.
“I use specially designed newspapers for students who have special needs,” she explains.
The newspapers discuss age-appropriate current events by incorporating text with picture symbols and are used as a socializing tool and to expand the students’ vocabulary and comprehension. Greco establishes pen pals for her students to discuss newspaper topics or school events. The pals even meet for birthday parties, field trips, and on-campus gatherings.
“It is very difficult for my students to initiate conversations,” says Greco. “But the newspaper presents a common area of interest for my students to connect with their peers.”
As the Golden Apple Teacher of the Year, Greco has several specific goals in mind for reaching out to the Marion County school system. Not surprisingly, two of those include incorporating technology into every classroom and increasing literacy through storytelling.
“I have seen how important technology is in my classroom to motivate and enable students,” she says. “As for literacy, it is so critical to student achievement on any level. I would like to increase the use of community members coming to our classrooms to read to our students. Reading is truly contagious.”
On the whole, Greco views the teaching profession as being one of empowerment.
“Education enables students to realize their worth in society and achieve their personal goals,” she says. “My goal is to empower my students with the tools to succeed in the classroom and in life.”
The Rest of the Best
THE GOLDEN APPLE TEACHERS
After reviewing 40-plus portfolios, conducting interviews, and observing dozens of finalists, the Public Education Foundation also recognized these talented instructors at the gala in February. Photos by Kevin Christian.
Osceola Middle School
Becoming a teacher was likely imprinted in Mary K. Zorich’s (pictured above with Superintendant Jim Yancey) genetic makeup. Her father was a science teacher and later a principal.
“I followed in my father’s footsteps after seeing what a wonderful difference he made in the lives of others,” says Zorich, who at 46 is already a 22-year teaching veteran.
Zorich teaches mathematics, her passion, to seventh graders at Osceola Middle School. She is undaunted and innovative.
“When I know some students are struggling, I pair them with peer tutors in the classroom,” she explains. “This strengthens the understanding of the children doing the ‘re-teaching’ and gives the struggling student a different mode of learning.”
Education, according to Zorich, extends beyond the classroom.
“Educating our children isn’t just the responsibility of the schools, but our whole society,” she says. “That’s the only way every child can be reached.”
Reddick-Collier Elementary School
As a Pre-K teacher at Reddick-Collier Elementary School, Nicole Lambert works with the littlest students.
“Literacy is the core of my instruction,” says Lambert, 38. “We read poetry and nursery rhymes, sing songs, and spell color words. The children develop a love of literacy through these hands-on activities.”
All of Lambert’s teaching methods stem from her belief that “every child has the right to a quality education.”
Personalizing that philosophy, Lambert says, “The more I can make learning exciting and help children believe that they are capable of great things, then they can truly discover the feeling of being successful.”
Marion Technical Institute
When John Betts needs to inspire and encourage a troubled student, he has his own personal story to share. As a child, he failed kindergarten, had a lisp, and suffered with undiagnosed dyslexia. Betts, 57, credits a summer camp counselor who gave him a book about a boy much like himself with changing his life.
Betts became an executive chef, but the effect that counselor had on his life never left him and he embarked on a teaching career in 1998. He was the culinary arts instructor at Tavares High School from 1998-2006, when he accepted the same position at Marion Technical Institute.
“I believe I can help children change their lives and rise above the situations in which they find themselves,” he says. “I watch for those teachable moments when a young man or woman realizes that they need to know something.”
Lana Yvette Boulware
For Lana Yvette Boulware, 44, teaching is not just a job—it’s a calling. She is currently a second grade teacher at Saddlewood Elementary where she teaches reading, writing, language arts, math, science, and social studies. To keep her students engaged, Boulware goes out of her way to bring the fictional characters in the stories the kids are reading to life.
“I like to dress up as a character,” she says. “When I do this, the students are more attentive to the story that is being read. I cherish seeing the look in a child’s eyes when the light bulb comes on and they finally understand.”
The Rookie of the Year
Melissa Forsyth Lindeman
Belleview High School
Lindeman, 25, is a third-generation educator who comes by her teaching skills naturally. Her mother, Terri Forsyth, is an assistant principal at Wyomina Park Elementary and her grandmother, Rebecca Jarrell, was an elementary school principal for 30 years.
At Belleview High School, Lindeman’s students are juniors who have yet to pass the reading portion of the FCAT. To help the students accomplish their goal, Lindeman looks at the big picture.
“Here’s a visual,” she says. “Your eleventh-grade intensive reading teacher is in baggy pants, dancing around to a popular hip-hop song that you are used to hearing while hanging out with your friends. But she’s changed the words around to help you remember a reading strategy.”
And the response from the students?
“At first my students laughed,” she recounts, “then they joined in.”
It worked. According to Lindeman, over 80 percent of her students increased their scores on the reading portion of the FCAT.
For Lindeman, this is success. She adds that her students still sing that song every day when they walk into her classroom.
“They maintain the connection,” she says, “because I took the time to learn about them and the way they learn best.”