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2012 PEOPLE Teacher of the Year

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If the deluge of applications to PEOPLE’s first Teacher of the Year contest is any indication, America is full of great educators. By the end of our search, five stood out with winning combinations of proven success and moving stories of how they connect with their students. On these pages you’ll meet innovators who challenge kids to dream bigger, work harder, think more creatively and accomplish more than they ever imagined. Congrats to the class of 2012!

THE ‘LADY WITH THE LITTLE BOOKS’

ELIZABETH CURRAN, 58

Richards Elementary School, Newport, N.H.

With more than 200 books to her credit, Elizabeth “Libby” Curran might be the James Patterson of the early-childhood set. Well, without the sales figures. Each volume is a handcrafted limited edition that she puts together with scissors and staples and gives away for free. “I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent making them,” says Curran, who writes and photo-illustrates a book a week using simple but humorous language about dogs, dinosaurs, balloons, butterflies, flying pigs and flying squirrels. “I try to pick up on my students’ interests, and throw in things that are silly or surprising,” says the child therapist turned special-education teacher. To learn to read, “kids need lots and lots of books.” But in this rural, low-income pocket of the state, many kids have no books of their own until she gives them some. “I wanted to put books in children’s hands and homes.” Her students have extra challenges: physical, behavioral or cognitive disabilities. “Special-needs students often avoid reading because it’s hard, and they think they can’t do it.” She makes it irresistible. “She writes good books,” says Christian Padova, a second-grade alumnus of her class who is visually impaired. “Students love her classes, and testing scores bear out her success,” says Patti Warren, former principal at Richards Elementary. “She’s helped close the gap between special- and regular-education students.” Her books are used in other schools across the state through an after-school buddies system she pioneered to encourage beginning readers to read to one another. The popular program, based at the local library in Newport, has also led more than 500 children and their families to become regular library users. Curran gives the credit to her students: “They work so hard, they inspire me.”

Why I Became a Teacher

“I was sure that 30 hours a week [in a classroom] could make more of a difference in the life of a troubled child than one hour a week of therapy,” says Curran, a former family therapist.

THE ONE-MAN-BAND DEPARTMENT

ROBERT VEGA, 31

Rauner College Prep, Chicago

There are 348 music students at this Chicago charter. As for the music department? “You’re looking at him,” Vega says. In 2010, when the only other music teacher left, Vega volunteered to double his class size and workload. “It was challenging,” admits the single father of two. But now he happily teaches classes of 60 or more students, many of whom had never held an instrument. “The more the merrier! I believe everyone can learn to play,” says Vega, who is as fluent in classical and jazz as he is in Lady Gaga. Giving a brass band “Poker Face,” he says, “makes it fun for them.” Growing up in the gang-plagued Humboldt Park neighborhood, five miles from where he teaches, Vega struggled academically. Back then there was no school nearby like Rauner, which emphasizes college readiness and last year saw more than 90 percent of its graduates matriculate. College wasn’t in Vega’s plans. After graduation he joined the Navy and became a bugler on the U.S.S. Constitution before returning to school to become a teacher. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, and many of my students will be the first in their families.” Drawing those connections, Vega wins over kids who might be skeptical about riding the bus home with a French horn. “Mr. Vega has so many students, but he has a bond with every one of them,” says Brittanie LaCour, 17, who overcame her shyness to perform a trumpet solo. Once he has their trust, “he instills a sense of discipline,” says Eric Thomas, assistant superintendent of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. “He has high expectations. That helps them in academics, in sports and in their lives.” It also makes for great ensembles: Rauner’s concert band is ranked among the city’s best, and its jazz band placed fifth last year at a national high school competition. Even greater acclaim? “The whole day,” says senior Miguel Espinoza, “I look forward to going to his class.”

Why I Became a Teacher

“I want my students to know there are opportunities away from these streets.”

A MOM AWAY FROM HOME

JENNIFER BOHN, 39

Maynard Evans High, Orlando

“See you tomorrow, Mom,” a high school girl calls to Jennifer Bohn after the final bell. They aren’t related, but many of the students call Bohn “Mom.” “She thinks of us like her kids,” says sophomore Marklyne Joachim. Bohn earned the nickname by being as invested in her students’ lives as a family member-sometimes more so. “They know that I care for them unconditionally. I’m going to fuss at them when they get off track, and celebrate when they’re doing the right thing,” says Bohn, a former social studies teacher who now specializes in teaching at-risk students how to navigate the life skills that school requires, for instance time management, communication and choosing a positive peer group. In her class, called Leadership Development, Bohn also discusses teen pregnancy, homelessness, crime and AIDS prevention. “We can’t even begin to comprehend some of the struggles and battles that these kids face in their lives,” she says. “The odds are stacked against them.” So Bohn, who has a year-old daughter, follows up with several students in their homes, visiting with them and their parents in the evening. “If teachers think their job ends at the last period,” Bohn says firmly, “they’re mistaken.” The result of this one-on-one care, according to administrators, is an 80 percent graduation rate. One of her first success stories was LaToya Mack, who got pregnant during her sophomore year. “A lot of teachers thought that was it for me, that I’d never make anything of myself,” says Mack, now 30. “I brought the baby to school, and Ms. Bohn was like, ‘She’s cute, but let’s get you ready for your next test.’ She insisted that I would not fail.” The tough love worked: Mack graduated from college with a business degree and will begin working toward a master’s in education next year. And that baby? She’s now 14 and in one of Bohn’s classes. “She’s always there for me,” says Mack’s daughter Shyann Anderson. “I can ask her questions or just talk, and she’ll listen.” How does she give this level of service to each of her 60 kids? “I only have a few hours with the students every day, so every moment with them counts.”

Why I Became a Teacher

“My father died when I was 11. I was working through it, and there were some teachers who took me under their wing and let me teach in preschool. Thanks to them, I learned how to work with children.”

THE MECHANIC ON A MISSION

BRIAN COPES, 44

Calera High, Calera, Ala.

In a remote Honduran jungle, more than 1,500 miles from his rural Alabama classroom, Brian Copes taught his class the most important lesson of his career. After spending the previous year fashioning prosthetic legs from old car parts, ten of Copes’s pre-engineering students spent a week in a tiny Central American village to hand the limbs out to amputees. When the first patient was fitted with his new leg, Copes recalls, “one of my students ran up to me shouting, ‘It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!’ I can’t quite explain that moment, but that’s when I realized that the lesson had been learned.”

For Copes, an erstwhile carpenter now in his 18th year of teaching, it’s not enough to simply show his students the mechanics of engineering. “I can teach them how to pimp out a golf cart,” he says, “but if that’s all they learn, I’m not doing my job responsibly.” Instead, they design low-cost all-terrain vehicles to be used in areas of the world with poor road access. “I want them to realize there’s a world outside themselves, and their job is to make that world a better place.”

That’s a serious mandate, but Copes delivers it along with fun. “Mr. C” has a breezy rapport with the students, who ask for advice on everything from SATs to prom dates. “You can ask him about any problem,” says senior Stephen Wolfe, 17. “We all know we can depend on him to give us the right answers.” But since the Honduras trip, topics have evolved away from the teenagers’ typical me-me-me focus. “It changed my life,” says Wolfe. “You can’t really understand what people go through until you see it with your own eyes. A lot of the time, I’m asking him questions about how to help others, not how to help myself.” They are helping themselves too, of course. Their altruism has helped the students excel, with nearly 75 percent of them furthering their education after high school. “Some of these kids struggled in school,” says Copes. “But a light bulb came on, and they developed into leaders.”

Why I Became a Teacher

“I want the next generation to learn to serve others, and to use their talents and skills for the betterment of the world around them.”

THE ‘SCIENCE MAGICIAN’

ARWEN IMAI MATTHEWS, 31

KIPP 3D Academy, Houston

You can look at statistics to see that Matthews’ work is having an effect: Her eighth graders at this public charter school scored higher in science than all their KIPP peers nationwide. Or you can listen. For Matthews, success sounds like this: “Ohhhhh! I get it!” She hears that frequently, as a student latches onto a new idea-what makes a rocket soar, how a turbine turns wind to energy-and then explains it back to the teacher. “She’s determined to help us succeed,” says Emily Quach, age 12. To that end, Matthews is on-call after hours-or even after graduation day. “She’s often on the phone giving advice,” says principal Alison Cumbley. “Arwen takes her bond with students very seriously. Those bonds aren’t cut when the school year is over.” Getting female students to stick with science is a goal, though Matthews says, “I work with girls in the same manner I work with anyone. But I also try to role-model that it is okay to find all the gross, slimy, more stereotypically ‘boy’ things cool.” She runs the robotics club, founded the science fair and heads a department that she has improved not just through teaching innovations but by being a tireless grant writer. “If something is needed,” says Cumbley, “Arwen will find a way.” That ability to juggle may help when, later this year, Matthews and husband Ken, a chemical engineer, welcome their first child. What might give way in her packed schedule? Possibly the regular Dungeons & Dragons game she plays with other science teachers and engineers. “Really nerdy,” she allows. “But really fun.”

Why I Became a Teacher

“I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. When I’m gone, I hope there’s some part of me still existing that reflects what I’ve done.”