To honor the top Hispanic educators in the state, Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera congratulated two Hispanic teachers from North Central Florida and another from South Florida at the governor’s home on Oct. 2.
“The Hispanic Heritage Month Educator Award is a wonderful opportunity to honor Florida educators who have demonstrated a passion for sharing Florida’s Hispanic heritage with their students and communities,” Volunteer Florida’s CEO Chester W. Spellman wrote in an email.
Along with recognition, Maria Gonzalez, from Dunnellon Elementary School, Grisell Santiago, from P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, and Liska Garcia, from Imagine School at Land O’ Lakes were each awarded $1,500.
When Maria Gonzalez received the call, she went into the principal’s office at Dunnellon Elementary School crying with joy.
Gonzalez is the first teacher from Dunnellon Elementary to receive the Excellence in Education Award.
The annual award is sponsored by Volunteer Florida, the Florida Department of Education and the Executive Office of the Governor and recognizes outstanding Hispanic teachers who initiate change inside and outside of the classroom.
“I’m very proud of her for this award because it has such a lasting impact,” said Dunnellon Principal Gay Street. “She’s impacting 700 kids in our school. She’s also impacting our entire district.”
Street nominated Gonzalez for the award to acknowledge her Hispanic teachers for their contributions to the school.
“I want my teachers to know that I recognize and value their culture and that we support them,” Street said.
Gonzalez, who lived in Miami for most of her life, said she is aware of how big the Hispanic community is in Florida’s larger cities, such as Tampa, Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville.
“This is a once-in-a-million kind of chance,” she said. “It really is a great honor.”
Street said she thinks Gonzalez’s background contributes to the patience and kindness she demonstrates with her students.
Gonzalez said when she first arrived in the United States from Cuba at age 4, English classes were not available to help her learn the language. She had to adapt.
Apart from her accomplishments as a teacher, Gonzalez also founded Where the Eagles Soar Ministry with her husband in 2006. Gonzalez’s teaching abilities have been exemplified through her ministry, where she is currently working toward establishing free GED classes for members of the community.
Although she has taught first grade, Gonzalez said she favors her fourth graders because her students are at a more independent age and are becoming real thinkers.
Her favorite part about teaching is when students come to her for help when struggling with a concept. She said there is joy in seeing the students’ faces once they finally grasp and understand it — that is what makes teaching worthwhile every day.
“What I instill in them every year is to never settle for anything less than their best,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You know, nothing is impossible. If you study, and if you push hard, you will achieve your goals.’”
When Grisell Santiago received the call, she thought it was a traveling salesperson trying to sell a package for a trip to Europe that she takes every other year with her students.
As she attempted to politely hang up, the Volunteer Florida representative told her she was the high school winner of the Excellence in Education Award.
“I’m not surprised,” said Catherina Atria, principal for P. K. Yonge Developmental Research School. “She is very well-deserving.”
Santiago came from Puerto Rico and started her teaching career after getting her master’s degree at the University of Central Florida. She began teaching at P.K. Yonge after graduating and has been there since 2005.
Santiago is also a grader for the AP Spanish exam and has flown to Ohio many times to join 1,000 other teachers in grading about 100,000 exams. She said it isn’t easy, but she likes to see how the tests are structured and what changes are made so her students know exactly what to work toward.
Santiago said, “(The students) are going to fail if you don’t practice with them and tell them what do they need to know in order to be successful.”
Santiago’s AP Language and Culture and AP Literature and Culture classes have a 100 percent passing rate.
Atria said Santiago is constantly looking for ways to improve herself, her students and her fellow teachers.
To bring language teachers together, Santiago started the North Central Florida World Language Educators, a workshop open to all educators. The workshop includes help building lesson plans by discussing different techniques to engage students that help them learn a different language.
Last year, she joined Lizzie Rodriguez, the school’s French and Spanish I teacher, to bring a language competition to North Central Florida students who were unable to compete in state and national competitions.
Students participated in poetry and essay writing, a brain bowl and other types of Spanish and French competitions at the North Central Florida World Language Festival. The competition will be held again in February.
“I love the students,” Santiago said. “Interacting with them and seeing where they can get with the things that I do with them.”
Gonzalez and Santiago will continue to work on their personal projects to reach out to their students and the community.
Gonzalez is consistently working on her ministry, looking for ways to give back to the community and help those in need.
And Santiago said she plans to expand her North Central Florida World Language Festival and educator workshop to include students, parents and teachers all over the area.
“As Florida’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor, it is a privilege to celebrate this month of recognizing students and teachers for their hard work and dedication,” Lt. Gov. Lopez-Cantera said. The winners “proudly represent the diversity of our state” and “demonstrate why Florida is a special place to live, work and play.”