Top of the Class

From lesson plans to life choices, these six Palm Beach County educators take teaching to the next level

If you’ve been lucky enough to have a truly great teacher in your life, then you know they have the ability to make the kind of impact that can’t be erased. These six finalists for Palm Beach Illustrated’s 2021 Teacher of the Year are curious and kind. They’re passionate and patient. They reach students who seem unreachable and teach concepts that seem unteachable. And they do it all to make a genuine difference in the lives of their students.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Year nominee Ariana Murphy Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart
Photography by Carrie Bradburn. Shot on location at the Loxahatchee Schoolhouse in Yesteryear Village, West Palm Beach

Ariana Murphy

Accelerated Math Teacher, Belle Glade Elementary School

Ariana Murphy is a teacher moving the needle: Her students have tested so well over the last several years that their scores were instrumental in Belle Glade Elementary School’s overall letter grade increasing from a D to a C in 2019. Murphy believes helping students achieve new levels of success comes down to fostering relationships. “You’ve got to give them the knowledge and the tool set,” she says. “But you’ve also got to work to gain their trust so they have the confidence to use what you’ve taught them—in life or on a test.” 

Murphy is known for thinking outside the classroom. For five years, she has worked to foster open lines of communication with her students’ parents and adult caregivers. It’s a strategy that paid off when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Murphy’s classes online: She was the first teacher at her school to have a 100 percent online participation rate among her students. “I messaged the parents every day leading up to that first day online,” she says. “I wanted them to know what to expect.” 

But keeping her students engaged virtually took creativity. “I made it fun,” she adds. “I went out and bought funny glasses and other things just to make them think, ‘Okay, what is she going to come up with next?’ I wanted to keep them coming back each day
without fail.” 

Favorite teacher gift: Handmade notes from my students Actor who would play her in a biopic: Anne Hathaway Secret identity: A superhero Advice to new teachers: Don’t compare yourself to other teachers; learn from them instead! The greatest professional development is the teacher down the hall.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Year nominee Kim Rolston Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart

Kim Rolston

Early Education Teacher, The Greene School

Things look different from a child’s level. And as a teacher of 3- to 5-year-olds, Kim Rolston admits that means a lot of squatting and kneeling. But, she says, it’s worth the physical workout to build a solid foundation for The Greene School’s youngest students. “Even when they’re on the playground, they’re learning about their world,” she says. “Their play is their work.”

A veteran teacher of 18 years, Rolston says challenges are opportunities for growth. “There are years when you have a challenging age group or a challenging classroom,” she admits. “You start to think: ‘Okay, am I getting too old for this? Do I need to move on?’” In those moments, Rolston reminds herself that it’s all a journey—for teachers and students alike. “I’m not here just to teach these kids how to learn. I’m also teaching them how to handle difficult times or change. It’s important to model that.”

Rolston knows what it takes to work with young children, including those who struggle with prenatal addiction, poverty, and trauma. Before joining the faculty at The Greene School, she directed two local school centers for mothers battling substance abuse. It’s the kind of work that has made a permanent impact on Rolston’s heart. That’s why she continues to advocate for kids in need—as a board member of local nonprofit Back to Basics and as an ambassador for Take Stock in Children. 

Whether she’s working with young children as a teacher or as a volunteer, Rolston says that watching them learn is its own kind of magic. “They’re growing daily. They’re learning their letters, learning to count, but they’re also learning to be citizens in the world. It’s an amazing process to be a part of.” 

Something students would be surprised to know about her: I love art and I express it with tattoos. Actor who would play her in a biopic: Sandra Bullock Secret identity: A yoga instructor Advice to new teachers: Put your love and heart into it. Love what you do.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Year nominee Denise Ponchock Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart

Denise Ponchock

Middle School English Teacher, The Benjamin School

“Rigor” is not a word that rattles Denise Ponchock—or her students. Ponchock believes middle schoolers are uniquely willing to take academic risks. “They’re curious, driven, creative, and open to new ideas,” she says. 

The material that Ponchock presents—including works like Homer’s The Odyssey and Shakespeare’s The Tempest—are not without rigor or risk. “The classics are hard work, but they’re worth it,” Ponchock says. “My job is to bring in the scaffolding to help them resonate.” From poetry to movies to class debates and role-playing, there’s never a dull moment in Ponchock’s classroom at The Benjamin School. “I’m known to jump on tables,” she says. “You have to bring it alive. I’m always doing silly things to try to make sure that it’s all connecting.”

Ponchock’s students are often surprised that the themes in the books she teaches are relevant to their own lives. Case in point: She introduces the Holocaust to her sixth-graders during their study of the drama The Diary of Anne Frank by Goodrich and Hackett. While some might fret over the themes of bigotry and cruelty, Ponchock says her students are singularly primed for the story’s message. “Middle schoolers are at a crossroads,” she explains. “They’re defining themselves and figuring out where they stand. That can sometimes lead to some pretty cruel behavior.” 

She adds that the cautionary tale is not lost on her students. “They see the magnitude of what happens when we don’t speak up for others or for ourselves,” she says. “It really resonates with them.”

 Something students would be surprised to know about her: I have had a motorcycle since I graduated from college. I now ride a Harley-Davidson. Actor who would play her in a biopic:  Emma Watson (with, unfortunately, an American accent) Secret identity: A novelist Advice to new teachers: Remember that a student will never forget criticism. Choose your words carefully.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Year nominee Juliany Denis Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart

Juliany Denis

Fifth-Grade Teacher, Greenacres Elementary School

For Juliany Denis (or “Mr. J,” as he’s known to his students), curiosity is key. It’s the reason, he says, that he got into teaching in the first place. “[As a kid,] I was always asking things like, ‘Why do we have five fingers?’ Why not go into a profession where you’re constantly asking and answering questions?” 

As a so-called “self-contained” teacher, Denis teaches a spectrum of subjects to his fifth-grade students at Greenacres Elementary School. From math and science to reading and writing, he believes his curiosity keeps things interesting. “I like to think of it not so much as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none situation,” he says. “I like to think of myself as more of a Renaissance man. No matter the subject, I’m always asking more questions and finding out more answers.”

To inspire a love of creativity in his students, Denis makes sure his classroom is a place where students are free to offer up their own ideas and thoughts. “I love to debate with them,” he says. “I love to pose a question to the kids and have them hash out their perspectives and opinions. I love to challenge them to use evidence to back up their thinking, whether they’re considering a math question or the plot in a story. It’s so incredible to see them make a case and then prove it one
way or the other.” 

But sometimes it’s the stuff Denis teaches outside of the classroom that makes the greatest impact. As a sponsor of the school’s safety patrol program, he mentors students who have been identified as school leaders—and those who are struggling to find their leadership potential. Denis works to guide both types of students; he recalls a particularly combative child who was able to pivot. “I remember asking him to take a walk with me to the playground,” he says. “We spent 30 minutes just talking about our personal lives and dreams. After that, he never got in trouble ever again. He actually became a role-model student and joined us on safety patrol.”

Favorite teacher gift: A t-shirt with a picture of my class on it and the words, “Best Teacher Ever” Something students would be surprised to know about him: I have four tattoos; they can only see that I have one. Actor who would play him in a biopic: Lin-Manuel Miranda or Dwayne Johnson Advice to new teachers: Be flexible with your time, your schedule, and your expectations.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Sandra Algarin Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart

Sandra Algarin

Middle and Upper School Teacher, Grandview Preparatory School

Sandra Algarin’s math students at Grandview Preparatory School don’t wonder how the concepts she teaches apply to the real world; they see it firsthand in her inquiry-based classroom.

For Algarin, math’s lessons go beyond the sum line. In her thirty-second year of teaching, she aims to help students master math and build the “soft skills” they’ll need as problem-solvers—in the classroom and beyond. “I’m teaching them how to solve a math problem,” she says, “but I’m also teaching them about communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and character.” 

Students in Algarin’s class harness those skills—both hard and soft—when they start their own business for her capstone class project. “They pick a business they want to create and learn all about what goes into it, including a financial plan,” she explains. “They start to see how math is central to everything.”

The project is eye-opening to many of Algarin’s students. “They’re always like, ‘Wow, this is expensive,’” she says, recalling a student whose initial business plan included opening a warehouse. “When he started working on the math, he realized the money didn’t add up. He said to me, ‘Maybe I need to start in my garage.’ When they have those moments where they see how numbers matter, that is really special for me.”

She knows she’s made a difference when: A student mentions some advice I gave them, and they still remember it years later. Something students would be surprised to know about her: I played the clarinet in the school band for seven years. Actor who would play her in a biopic: Rita Moreno Advice to new teachers: Find a mentor. Veteran teachers are always willing to share their experiences.

PBI 2021 Educator of the Year nominee Shaundrika Taylor Photo by Carrie Bradburn, Capehart

Shaundrika Taylor

Assistant Principal, Congress Middle School

What motivates students to achieve? It could be anything from pride to pressure. But Shaundrika Taylor will tell you that the chance to score a gift card will turn students’ heads. The balances are small—$10 at Chick-fil-A, $5 at McDonald’s—but Taylor knows their impact can be huge.

 Take Taylor’s work to keep Congress Middle School’s students engaged when schools turned to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic: She started a weekly online read-along. The literacy program was so popular that she repeated it over the summer.

“Every student received copies of the three books we read, and they got to keep those books to develop a little at-home library,” she says. Every Wednesday evening, nearly 100 students logged on to hear teachers, administrators, and other guests read aloud. But the big to-do was the weekly gift card drawing: one entry for participation (“The fact that a student shows up is a world within itself,” Taylor says), and another for tackling some follow-up comprehension questions. The even bigger prize at the end of the program was a drawing for a $300 shopping spree at Target. 

But gift cards and shopping sprees aren’t the only go-to strategies in Taylor’s arsenal. Sometimes, she says, it takes reaching students on a human level. She recalls a student who was referred to her after butting heads with her homeroom teacher. “Our first encounter was not great,” Taylor admits. “But I told her, ‘You’re going to get to know me. You’re going to love Ms. Taylor before this is over.’” Taylor says that investment was all it took. “I kid you not,” she explains, “after that encounter, she would not leave my side.”

For Taylor, moments like those are the biggest payoff of all. “It just tells you that they’re listening, that what you’re doing is making an impression.”

Favorite teacher gift: A parent donated 25 iPads for my classroom so students would have access to technology. Something students would be surprised to know about her: I’m a veteran of the U.S. Army. Actor who would play her in a biopic: Halle Berry Advice to new teachers: Get organized!

About the Loxahatchee Schoolhouse at Yesteryear Village: Opening its doors in 1936 with one teacher and 13 children across six grade levels, this wood-frame, one-room schoolhouse is one of the longest-used schoolhouses in Palm Beach County. Younger students were taught on one side of the room, while older students worked independently on the other side. In 1990, the schoolhouse was moved to its current location at West Palm Beach’s Yesteryear Village, an open-air living history museum comprised of buildings that
represent early life in rural Florida.

Story Credits:

Photography crew: Carrie Bradburn, Julia Duresky, Capehart Photography

Makeup: Deborah Koepper, Deborah Koepper Beauty, Palm Beach 

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