The six winning entries feature teachers who make learning an adventure

Updated October 16, 2013 08:00 AM
Credit: Michael Lavine

For the second year in a row, PEOPLE editors, along with an advisory board of education professionals, have read through a mountain of inspiring applications for the annual Teacher of the Year Award. And it was no easy feat – there are a lot of amazing teachers out there!

The six winning entries featured teachers who make learning an adventure. With creativity and heart, and some sacrifices of their own, they’re helping their students succeed. And as musician and education activist John Legend, a member of PEOPLE’s advisory board, said, “These incredible teachers are changing the lives of their students and paving the way for a new generation of American leaders.”

We are pleased to announce the class of 2013:

Art Almquist
Theater Teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, Tucson, Ariz.

For the past 17 years, Almquist has been Tucson Magnet s drama teacher. He has built a cutting-edge theater program rarely seen on the high school level. For Almquist, known for staging productions on topics such as AIDS, environmental activism and immigration, theater offers a way to teach his students a variety of skills that go beyond acting. He s influenced thousands of students to find the challenge, the love, and the joy of whatever career they pursue, says former student Julian Martinez. Almquist is the recipient of the first Readers’ Choice award, thanks to thousands of you who voted on

Marsha Dionisio
Fourth Grade Teacher at Hugh J. Boyd Jr. Elementary School, Seaside Heights, N.J.

After 29 years, this fourth grade teacher says, You have your materials, your books, your lesson plans and you could probably teach blindfolded. Then, suddenly, you have nothing. That s what happened last October when Seaside Heights, N.J., was whipped by superstorm Sandy, destroying its elementary school and the homes of many of its 260 students and staff, including Dionisio, who had spent her entire career there. Homeless for eight months, she started teaching in a borrowed high school gym with donated supplies. She used the single book that she had multiple copies of – The Invention of Hugo Cabret – to teach reading, spelling, math, probability, social studies and geography. Soon her room became a safe haven of fun and learning for children traumatized by the storm.

John Herber
Science Teacher at Oakcrest Elementary School, Pensacola, Fla.

Teaching in one of Florida s poorest districts, Herber says his method is simple: “I plan my classes so that students can experience science and see it for themselves. To study the life cycle of butterflies, Herber got permission to dig up a patch of land behind his classroom, and enlisted some of the football players (whom he volunteers to coach) to plant it. Now, the whole school enjoys it: “The fifth graders give tours to younger students,” says Herber. The results are unmistakable. Before Herber started teaching science at Oakcrest, 16 percent of the school’s fifth graders were considered proficient in science; five years later, 66 percent have either met or exceeded expectations. Says Herber: “My goal is to ensure my students do not know they are disadvantaged.”

Mary Kurt-Mason
Special Education Teacher at Pagosa Springs High School, Pagosa Springs, Colo.

Through the use of an innovative outdoor program that involves sea-kayaking, white-water rafting and skiing, Kurt-Mason has spent the past 28 years enriching the lives of young people in her tiny Colorado town who are grappling with a variety of learning issues. Kurt-Mason connects with these often hard-to-reach teenagers and challenge what they – and their parents – believe is possible, instilling a priceless sense of confidence and independence in her students. I believe in my students right to take risks like everyone else, she says.

Brenda Martinez, Radames Galarza and Elissa Guarnero
Bilingual Teaching Team at A.L.B.A. Elementary, Milwaukee, Wis.

Our first team winners, Brenda Martinez, Radames Galarza and Elissa Guarnero banded together 10 years ago to found A.L.B.A., a bilingual fine arts elementary school. Before that, as they wrote in their application essay, We found ourselves teaching at schools where bilingual students were treated as though their culture and language was a liability rather than an asset. Under their leadership, students are defying the odds. A.L.B.A. s students have achieved proficiency levels that meet or exceed state averages. By implementing culturally relevant lesson plans they celebrate their students backgrounds and set them on a path to learning for a lifetime.

Valencia Robinson
Reading Teacher at New Smyrna Beach Middle School, New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Robinson, a 20-year veteran of the Volusia County public school system, teaches intensive reading to seventh- and eighth-graders. With limited resources, she has secured more than $20,000 in grants to fund new technology for her students and helps other teachers do the same. Once a struggling student herself, she has become a trusted mentor for some of the school s most troubled kids, and she has extended help to her students families for everything from paying utility bills to arranging free mammograms. As a survivor of breast cancer, she encourages her students to make healthy lifestyle choices. One of her students wrote in support of her application: I always think of you as the teacher who cares. It s like you see the diamond underneath and you ll be damned if you let it go.

Are you a great teacher? Do you know one? Look for the launch of the next PEOPLE Teacher of the Year contest early next year on

PLUS: Watch for PEOPLE’s Teacher of the Year on Katie this Thursday. Check your local listings for times.