For the first time since the Robert W. Hughes Alachua County Teacher Recognition program began in 1993, the finalists are non-core subject teachers.
Ray Crone is a physical education teacher at W.W. Irby Elementary in Alachua; Nate Bisco directs the Santa Fe High School band; Lori Pirzer is the band director at Oak View Middle School in Newberry.
Chosen by the 40 other nominees from Alachua County schools, the finalists will be recognized Feb. 4 — and one will represent the district in Florida Teacher of the Year consideration.
It takes heart to be a hero.
Ray Crone, P.E. teacher at Irby Elementary, says he lives to do so.
“One,” he tells his students, “Be a hero, be thankful, be kind, be humble.”
On a crisp January morning before class, it’s too cold for the kids to play outside.
They warm up, circle around the basketball court and herd together in front of their teacher.
“Hi, Coach!” they squeal.
In the cafeteria, the students watch as 7-year-old Timothy Krutfeld cross jumps: he swings the jump rope back, crosses his arms in the air and lands it.
“I struggle with this,” Crone said. “But I keep trying. I don’t want you to give up.”
Crone coordinates the annual Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser, raising money for the American Heart Association and teaching kids endurance.
But he doesn’t just teach physical education, he said. He wants his kids to get along, socialize and respect authority.
“He teaches us how to forgive each other,” said 8-year-old Messiah Fulcher. She said Crone makes them shake hands during sports activities.
Crone’s teaching career started 30 years ago. He got the teaching gene, he said. His parents, his sister and his grandmother all had it. His dad, Buddy, was the swim coach and physical education teacher at the University of Florida and was awarded teacher of the year before his retirement.
Crone is retiring this year. In some ways, he feels this recognition is a tribute.
“It’s a nice parallel,” he said. “I’m grateful to finish the same way as my dad.”
Valdenora Fortner, principal of Irby, said Crone connects with all people, from students to parents and community members.
“He gives of himself fully,” she said.
When Rhonda Kleckner’s daughter Emma fell, the consequences were terrible.
She had life-long nerve damage, said Kleckner, a paraprofessional ESE techer at Irby Elementary. She couldn’t hold a pencil. She couldn’t hold her flute.
The doctors thought she’d be in a wheelchair.
“But, she said, ‘no I want to march,’” Kleckner said.
“Mr. Bisco does that – he encouraged her.”
When Nate Bisco’s students found out he was a finalist for teacher of the year, they weren’t surprised.
“Of course,” said 17-year-old Mandi Childers, who plays the flute in his class. “Band teachers deserve it – they spend the most time with us.”
Bisco, who’s been involved in music since the third grade, started as a percussionist and aspiring rock drummer.
“I couldn’t live without music being a part of my life,” he said.
Bisco plays in the Gainesville Community Band and teaches choral and Advanced Placement Music Theory in addition to his band courses.
“There’s always more work to be done,” he said. “But sometimes you just have to get in the car and go home.”
After graduating from the music program at the University of Miami, Bisco started his career in the city. He started to see the band as an outlet for success.
Sixteen-year-old Jahirah Williams plays the percussion and piano for Bisco’s band at Santa Fe High. He said, with Bisco’s help, he can really feel the music.
“I closed my eyes, and I’ve been imagining music ever since,” he said.
To his students, the band is like family.
They value compromise, he said, because “everything you do affects the band.”
Even though the competitions are fun, Bisco said the process of learning is the most rewarding.
“But the daily classes, when I see the figurative sparkle in a kid’s eye – those are the best.”
Lori Pirzer knew she wanted to direct middle school band since she was in middle school.
“When I joined band, positive peer pressure made me do better,” she said.
“I thought ‘my gosh, if it can do that for someone like me, what can it do for other people?’”
She was in the Gator band during her time at UF and started her 15-year career at Oak View after graduation. Now, she watches students from all walks of life come into her classroom and work together.
Music is something worth working for, she said.
“It doesn’t just come to you,” said 14-year-old clarinet player Matthew Schuler.
Most of Pirzer’s students had never played an instrument before stepping into class.
“You start from the bottom; and she brings you to the top,” said Natalie Oyenarte, an eighth grader who plays the alto saxophone.
Principal Katherine Munn said Pirzer’s recognition is well deserved.
“Music touches students’ lives,” Munn said. Pirzer’s class is cross-curricular, Munn said, and bridges connections between how music and sounds work with subjects like math, reading and science.
The band, which has been recognized at the state and local level, played their new piece, “The Lords of Greenwich,” for the first time on Friday.
“That went so much better than I pictured,” Pirzer said. “Moments like that are kind of what I live for.”
Pirzer’s band will perform at the event Feb. 4.
For all three finalists, it will be a celebration of teachers, and there is one thing they all agree on:
“Any of the three of us would be able to represent Alachua County,” Pirzer said. “Everyone is doing really great things with their kids.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of “Oyenarte”. The previous version read “Oienarte”.