They count 117 years of teaching among them, but it is the stories from inside their classrooms that earned six teachers the highest praise and honors at Thursday’s 32nd annual Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education, presented by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and the Education Foundation.
For 31 years, those honors numbered only five: one for elementary, middle and high school education, two others for special and career education.
But Wednesday night, Marilynn Pedek Howard became the inaugural winner in a new category: the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or STEM. A chemistry teacher at Alexander Dreyfoos School of the Arts, she has helped students find the science in paint pigments and dance movements.
“The pinnacle of my career was when I team taught physics and we had art teachers in class with us every day,” Howard said. Howard credited her dad for teaching her the art of inquiry over father-daughter walks in nature.
Over a 28-year-career, Howard has tapped nature for lessons, challenging students to divine why she throws a wet towel over her cooler while out boating, or to determine why fish bleed green in the depths but red near water’s surface.
More than 300 teachers were nominated by their peers and 30 finalists were selected by panels of community and business leaders.
Howard’s fellow winners have also found inventive ways to nurture their students’ potential.
Lisa Innerst, the novice of the bunch with four years teaching at Marshe Pointe Elementary, has a way of turning around a fidgety fifth-grader with a secret reading challenge.
Jamie Lawrie, with nine years, has mined students’ math work to tailor lessons both in school and after hours at Bak Middle School.
High school education winner and 26-year veteran William Bartenslager manages 30 researchers at a time — all of them students, who often see their science projects go on to state and even national competition with his guidance.
“The best part is when I can get them as a ninth-grader and each year we can build upon the project,” said Palm Beach Central High’s Bartenslager.
Former first-grade teacher Nancy Howard was pressed into service at North Grade Elementary’s special education room when three teachers quit the job in one year. She recalled being so hesitant, she made her principal put in writing that she could go back to first grade if she didn’t like it. She never did.
The 28-year-veteran says, “At some point you have to stop, but I don’t want to. It’s the kids. The small steps they make are major to them. Learning to walk, learning to talk … I guess he was right because I couldn’t imagine going back.”
Suncoast High’s John Bowers recalls being a failing middle school student before a special teacher turned his life around. He went from being a D-student to graduating fifth in his class. He became an engineer at Pratt & Whitney, but a talk to students 22 years ago changed his trajectory. He left a career and a more impressive paycheck to teach.
The winner in the career category engages his students with computers, programming and robotics. His secret weapon: A robotics Olympiad.
“Basketball. Relay races. Soccer. Sumo wrestling is their favorite. It’s 13 years running,” Bowers beams. “I would like to thank all of my students for allowing me to teach them. I would like to thank all the administrators who allowed me to teach my way. “
Winners of the 32nd annual Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education:
Elementary education: Lisa Innerst, Marsh Pointe Elementary
Middle school education: Jamie Lawrie, Bak Middle School of the Arts
Senior high education: William Bartenslager, Palm Beach Central High School
Special programs: Nancy Howard, North Grade Elementary
Career education: John Bowers, Suncoast High School
STEM: Marilynn Pedek Howard, Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts
Awards by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County in partnership with the Education Foundation