Palm Beach County abounds with outstanding teachers who think beyond the classroom and make a genuine difference in their students’ lives. This summer, while they took a much-deserved break, PBI embarked on a mission to identify some of the best. We put out a call for nominations in our inaugural Education Awards, looking for distinguished candidates in the categories of educator, academic program, and institutional excellence. On September 20, we’ll honor the finalists and announce the winners at a dinner at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Here, we present the five teachers in the running for Educator of the Year.
Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Florida Atlantic University
For Yash Bhagwanji, PhD, it was Palm Beach County’s natural beauty and wonderful biological diversity that ignited a passion for children’s environmental literacy development. He began teaching at Florida Atlantic University in 2003 and helped to create the university’s early childhood education degree—making FAU the first college in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in the subject. He’s been developing and teaching related courses ever since.
In the spirit of his appreciation for the county’s environs, his favorite courses are the ones that allow him to teach outside of the classroom. By bringing his students to explore wild and natural places ranging from the marshes of the Wakodahatchee Wetlands to the mangroves in Boca Raton, Bhagwanji hopes to inspire them in their own teaching endeavors.
“Students are engaged in passive learning too much,” he says. “The teachers talk, and the kids are asked to sit and listen, to quietly read their books. But I don’t think that’s the most effective form of learning. I think learning is best when it’s interactive, when students are actively engaged in discovery, experimentation, and socialization.”
Bhagwanji’s students appreciate these inventive teaching methods, which have helped them get involved in their own communities. And though his many accolades reflect how his efforts are impacting the lives of current and future students alike, it’s his dedication to creative learning that sets him apart.
“When we teach children and youths, it shouldn’t be about doom and gloom and how we’re ruining the earth,” he says. “It should be about beauty and mysteries and the wonders of nature, how magical things can happen in our own backyards, because that’s what’s going to motivate them to want to learn about and engage with these amazing natural places.”
2. Loverly Sheridan
Adult Education Instructor, Delray Full Service School
With globetrotting credentials that include living in and visiting six of the seven continents and more than 60 countries, Loverly Sheridan has been able to cross numerous items off her bucket list. But for Sheridan, an adult education instructor at Delray Full Service School, there are still plenty of passions to pursue and causes to tackle, including her most recent focus: anti-bullying in schools.
“Bullying is a global issue and an ongoing problem in our world,” says Sheridan, who is also the president of LS Creative Services, which develops awareness campaigns for issues affecting children and adults. “It’s truly an epidemic and the root of a lot of problems we continue to face today.”
Sheridan shares this message, her experiences, and her hopes for future generations in her writing. She’s penned five children’s books, including Be a Buddy, Not a Bully, which promotes friendliness and inclusivity. “I believe it’s important to begin addressing the issues of bullying at a very early age and create a no-bullying culture from the onset,” she explains. “If we focus on prevention, we won’t have to worry about the cure.”
This belief inspired the creation of the Buddy Ambassadors program, which Sheridan runs in partnership with Mental Health America of Palm Beach County. The initiative includes the use of Buddy Benches, tangible tools that are placed in elementary school playgrounds to help put Sheridan’s prompt to be a buddy into practice. If a child needs a friend, he or she can sit on the bench, and a child who is part of the Buddy Ambassadors program will reach out.
“There’s this enormous pressure placed on children and adults to succeed, but what’s the purpose of passing tests yet failing at life?” asks Sheridan. “Our children’s mental health, and the mental health of each other, should be our first priority.”
3. Ryan Smith
Third-Grade Math and Science Teacher, The Greene School
When Ryan Smith first moved to Florida, it was for an internship at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium that was supposed to last eight months. That was 16 years ago. Now, having realized his passion for teaching, he’s a third-grade math and science teacher at The Greene School in West Palm Beach. Although he’s only been at the school for two years, he’s already made lasting impressions on both his students and co-workers.
Last year, Smith helped to establish the school’s fabrication lab, a space outfitted with cutting-edge technology including multiple 3-D printers and laser and vinyl cutters. The “Fab Lab,” as it has been dubbed, offers a digital design elective class where students can work on their own projects, whether that’s vinyl cutting stickers for classrooms or forging a skateboard using laser cutters.
“I’d describe the Fab Lab as a place where kids can take an idea from their imagination, create a digital design, and then turn that into an actual prototype,” says Smith. “And what’s really fun about that class is I’m not just handing them projects to make—they have the opportunity to develop their own ways of design thinking.” He’s also ensured kids across the county can have similar opportunities by co-founding a program with the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium that has placed 30 3-D printers into local middle schools at no cost to them.
For both of his years affiliated with The Greene School, Smith has aided the institution in receiving Green Schools of Excellence awards, which recognize and support green school initiatives and sustainable practices. Besides running a student club that has implemented a schoolwide recycling program, Smith also oversees the school’s organic garden.
“It’s a powerful learning tool,” he says. “Every grade has something garden-related tied into its curriculum, and we pair grade levels like seventh graders and pre-K kids so the older students can learn mentorship skills. We’ve also partnered with Lox Farms in Wellington, and the parents get involved too. It really builds a sense of community, both inside the school and out.”
4. Laura Vernon
Professor of Psychology, Wilkes Honors College at FAU
As a psychology professor, Laura Vernon, PhD, makes the mental health of her students a top priority. Vernon, who began teaching at the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University in 2006, has been committed to finding new ways to help support students from day one.
“I teach an introductory freshman-level class, so I often see students during their first week,” says Vernon, who was recently named the associate dean of FAU’s honors college. “Then I teach them in advanced courses later and often advise them during their last years, so I get to see them develop along the way.”
Vernon’s mentorship efforts go beyond the classroom with her FAU Thrive initiative, which she launched a year ago to support student mental health after receiving the university’s Distinguished Teacher of the Year award. Since recipients give keynote addresses at the awards convocation, Vernon thought long and hard about what she wanted to say during her own. “We were there celebrating successes, but I wanted to acknowledge how those successes often come after a lot of failures, struggles, and difficulty, and how we need to embrace that as part of the process,” she says.
Within her initiative, Vernon works with student groups to create health- and wellness-focused blogs and social media campaigns, and assists students with events, movies, discussion groups, and workshops. “I love how I get to have meaningful interactions with bright, open-minded young people who are thinking about who they’re going to be and what impact they’re going to have on the world,” notes Vernon, who hopes to make FAU Thrive a permanent part of the university. “It’s an amazing transition they’re going through at this time of their lives, and it’s an honor to be part of it.”
5. Cristen Magaletti
History and Social Entrepreneurship Teacher, Saint Andrew’s School
In January 2018, Saint Andrew’s School opened the Dr. Albert Cohen Family Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. When Cristen Magaletti interviewed at the school a short while later, she knew the timing of her arrival was ideal. The school was looking to expand its entrepreneurship class offerings, and Magaletti’s combined background in teaching design thinking and innovation classes was a perfect fit.
In addition to her work as a class advisor and history teacher, Magaletti’s popular social entrepreneurship course introduces students to members of the business community who work within that field, while also encouraging them to develop sustainable solutions for social challenges and topics they truly care about. “It’s very real-world,” says Magaletti. “They’re not just creating plans but taking the next steps in the process of launching businesses that create meaningful change. In school, you can be a kind of square peg in a round hole if you don’t excel in topics like English or math, but this course is a way for students to explore these other places of passion in a real, hands-on way.”
Through this course, Magaletti has helped Saint Andrew’s become the first Fair Trade School in Florida, a designation that recognizes efforts to mobilize fair-trade principles. Earlier this year, she brought her student leaders to a civility summit at Lynn University, where examples of student-led fair-trade campaigns inspired them to bring similar initiatives back to their own campus and to begin conversations about conscious consumer practices in the community.
“It was a totally student-driven initiative, a passion project that led to our Fair Trade School designation,” says Magaletti. “I think by increasing these conversations about sustainability, students have the power to affect real change. Oftentimes, they feel they need to wait until adulthood before they can make a difference, but this shows they can effect change right now. When students mobilize, amazing things happen.” «