18 alumni have earned Miami-Dade’s top teaching honor

Carol Iglesias at Royal Palm Elementary

Carol Iglesias (right), Miami-Dade’s 1980 Teacher of the Year, inspired her former student Roxanna Concepción to become a teacher. Today, they teach together at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami.

In the first 18 years of their lives, Florida students will spend an average of 2,340 days in school. Change is inevitable. They make friends and lose friends. They grow into teenagers, graduate from one school and move on to the next.

Their one constant is teachers. From the front of the classroom, teachers lead children on journeys of exploration. They help shape how children see the world. A single science class or one English lesson can ignite passions. What they teach and how they teach can lead to discoveries that might solve the challenges confronting society today and well into the future.

Since opening its doors in 1972, FIU has produced educators. FIU’s impact on South Florida schools is far-reaching. In Miami-Dade County alone, 35 percent of all teachers are FIU alumni. In fact, most of FIU’s education alumni have stayed in South Florida, becoming teachers and principals in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Many of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ teachers of the year hold FIU degrees. From Alberto A. Soriano in 1973 to Geoffrey Aladro in 2016, FIU alumni bring something special to the classroom. They stand out for their expertise, for the creativity that helps children connect with their assignments, and for the relationships that inspire future educators.

Carol Iglesias earned her master’s degree in reading education from FIU in 1979. One year later, she was named Miami-Dade’s Teacher of the Year. After 46 years, two elementary schools and 1,380 students, she retired in 2008. But Iglesias couldn’t stay away. She has returned to Miami-Dade’s Royal Palm Elementary, where she spent much of her career.

“The key to good teaching is to have enough time to give to each child,” she said. “It’s difficult, yet teachers do an incredible job…they go far beyond what’s expected of them.”

Today, she spends her days helping teach lessons with one of her former students, Roxanna Concepción, who is now a teacher at Royal Palm Elementary.

But not all those who teach know from the get-go that they want to be teachers. Marshall Ruffo enrolled at FIU in 1997, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a minor in chemistry. He has always had a love for science and nature. He is divemaster certified, holds a Master Captain License from the United States Coast Guard, and spends much of his time exploring marine ecosystems. But mixed with his desire to be a scientist was also the desire to share his passions and foster a love of science among the next generation. Today, the 2014 Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year teaches biology at Cutler Bay Senior High.

Ruffo has taught nearly 1,900 students in general science classes, biology and marine science. As the demand grows in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, Ruffo is helping ignite interest among his students.

“It’s not in my nature to settle on the standard curriculum,” he said. “My experience has shown me that the more your students see that you know the subject matter and that you care, they are more willing to buy in. They want to know what they’re doing benefits them in the real world and that it’s not just a book thing.”

It’s an outdoors thing, too. Ruffo organizes kayaking trips and Everglades adventures so his students can explore local wildlife and ecosystems.

A teacher who spends decades in the classroom can reach thousands of students in their lifetime. But impact isn’t always measured by the sheer volume of those they teach. Sometimes, it’s measured by whom they teach. Lynn Carrier, who graduated from FIU in 1987, spent much of her teaching career pioneering a system of inclusion for 4- to 6-year-olds with autism.

“I fought for kids to have the opportunity to be exposed to their peers as long as they followed the same rules as everyone else,” Carrier said. “They have things to contribute as well. They deserved more than to visit a general classroom twice a week where they didn’t even have their own desk.”

During her 18 years at Gulfstream Elementary, she enjoyed watching her students grow and learn with the help of their peers. Her special needs students were able to follow along with the lessons given to other students. In total, she taught 360 children, a small number with huge impact. Today, she works for Miami-Dade County Public Schools in its Division of Academic Support. She trains the coaches who help teachers improve the performance of students in struggling schools.

“Teachers face strict curricular and accountability standards. Administrators are challenged to improve struggling schools, and districts face ongoing budget issues,” said Laura Dinehart, interim executive director of the School of Education and Human Development.

“But at FIU, we strive to prepare graduates who are persistent in their desire to serve students, families and communities. More than ever, we must prepare educators who are knowledgeable about content, flexible and dynamic in their pedagogy, and ready to take on challenges,” she added. “We have historically prepared educators who work ahead of the curve and we have every intention of continuing to do so.”

Since graduating its first class 43 years ago, 18 FIU graduates have gone on to earn Teacher of the Year honors in Miami-Dade County alone. Thousands more have helped to transform classrooms, improve local schools and impact the lives of their students.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Florida International University have forged a successful partnership on many fronts,” said Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho.

“Our partnership has yielded instructional excellence through the accomplished and exceptional teachers who have been trained at FIU and are now using their outstanding skills as educators to deliver robust and innovative instruction to Miami-Dade’s public school students. Our teachers are among the best and brightest educators in the nation and we hold all of them in high esteem.”