Everyday Heroes: AFT Teachers finalists

Voting is open
May 9 - May 29, 2016

Ron F. Espina
Teacher, Benavente Middle School, Dededo, Guam
Guam Federation of Teachers

Ron Espina makes computer science class a chance to think outside the box—and inside as well. The middle school educator in Guam has been teaching for 27 years. He remembers well the early years as computer science teacher at Benavente Middle School, before the classroom was brought up to speed with 30 networked machines and, instead, limped along as a lab filled with donated Mac relics. Espina found a way to turn scarcity into opportunity, however. He taught students how to refurbish, clean and rebuild the old Macs. And you can find small groups of students busy loading an operating system or installing a hard drive while Espina leads the class. "You have to be resourceful, especially in Guam," he explains, "because you don't have a lot of resources to start."

Last year, thanks to a grant, Espina was able to leap forward with more than two dozen networked computers that have helped him drive home a core message in his classroom—that beyond the wires and hardware lies a world of opportunity. Students in his classroom today become well versed in key office software and make good use of online venues that can stretch their learning across oceans. "Here, they learn that the computer is a tool—and like any tool, it's only as good as the way you use it," he says.

Outside the classroom, Espina has shown a talent for giving a little of himself in ways that "change lives and become a positive influence" on the students, one faculty member observes. A former DJ in college, Espina taught many of his student the tricks of the trade—and some have gone on to popularity at clubs and halls around the island. A few have eventually become business entrepreneurs and established their own disc jockey services.

This is the type of teacher who finds ways for students to "focus their energies in positive activities," another colleague adds. "He goes way beyond his duties as a computer teacher and sees in each student a potential for them to be their best self."

Curtis Ferguson
Teacher, David W. Carter High School, Dallas

When violent death shakes a school to its core, healing can quickly become part of an educator's job. Ask art teacher Curtis Ferguson, a 26-year veteran of Dallas public schools, who has taken a personal stand aimed at bringing the community together and calling out the real enemies behind the murders of three of his students in the past year.

These were African-American students whose deaths were not tied to police action, Ferguson points out, and their stories do not track the headlines about abuses in law enforcement. "The real enemies are illiteracy, poverty, truancy, hunger," he says. Ferguson is currently in the middle of a hunger strike to rally the community behind an agenda that he hopes will point anger in the right direction.

After losing more than 100 pounds on the medically supervised fast and speaking out against larger social forces that he passionately believes should be binding citizens and law enforcement together, Ferguson says people are seeing the hunger strike as a sincere effort by one teacher honoring the memory of students lost—and to work for a community where he will not be forced to mourn other lives lost. He began the strike to "begin conversations with students about making good choices and the importance of education," a colleague observed, and the action is driven by deep "concern about the loss of lives, students and former students, to violence in the predominantly African-American community where his campus is located."

And Ferguson points out that his actions are aimed at preventing another tragedy: the loss of creativity, of imagination, of a sense of personal value and self-worth—qualities that he sees missing in too many students. He speaks with pride of the students he's worked with who have overcome those barriers, including celebrated artist Amanda Dunbar. But he also speaks with regret of other times, including his service in a prison ministry, time spent with many lives lost to incarceration. "The thing was, so many of them could draw," he says.

Frank Harris
Teacher, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, Boston
Boston Teachers Union

Frank Harris has skill when it comes to seeing value in places the world sometimes overlooks. That was certainly the case in 1999, when this owner of a computer consulting business decided to change course, taking on the tough challenge of being a teacher at a time when the world seemed fixed on all things dot.com. "I was always a lifelong learner," Harris explains. "It was just a great fit for me."

Fast-forward 18 years, and it's clear the fit has worked not just for the statistics teacher but also for the entire community at Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, a union charter school on the campus of Northeastern University. It is Harris' professional home and a building where he has worn many hats over the years—mentoring students in the school science fair, starting and coaching the school's basketball team, and serving as the school's union representative, to name just a few.

Case in point: Harris helped start and administer a small scholarship at the school, a program that has offered about a dozen awards up to $1,000. The program is named for his father, Edward Harris, and his mother-in-law, Kathleen Jesson, both of whom made careers as teachers. And the help these scholarships provide, one colleague observes, often goes to a special type of student almost any teacher will appreciate: the talented, motivated kid who is doing great work even if it's not quite center stage, the type of kid who might otherwise fly under the radar at a school.

If none of this comes across as "flashy work," that suits Harris just fine. His hard work, associates say, is matched by an unassuming nature that is more at home discussing his pride in the entire school community than his personal contributions to making the school a special place to learn and teach. Others do notice and appreciate Harris' efforts, though. He enjoys "the respect of our union members and the administration alike," one says, and his work with his students "goes beyond expectations, with little praise and little recognition." 

Kathy Melvin
Teacher, Lowell High School, San Francisco
United Educators of San Francisco

If education is a window on the world, Kathy Melvin is constantly searching for ways to help fling it wide open. Former students often keep tabs with Melvin, a 24-year veteran who teaches environmental science, and the notes they send back describe such far-flung adventures as a thesis on algae populations in the Artic and Antarctic or architecture projects serving the homeless around the globe.

Many of those paths take root in her studies. Through grants and fundraisers, she and her high schoolers have traveled to Ecuador and Nicaragua, working on reforestation and water conservation "voluntourism" projects, fortnights that often provide students with an eye-opening perspective on such close-to-home issues as the California water crisis. Even closer to home, Melvin has developed compelling learning opportunities just feet away from the classroom. Her on-site garden gets all sorts of students involved in horticulture. "It's an extension of the classroom," she explains, and work in the garden has inspired students to analyze soil near their homes and neighborhoods.

Melvin also has taken the point when it comes to making her school a good environmental neighbor. She is the school's main connection to the school district's sustainability office. "In this role, she educates us all—teachers and students—on ways we can help save energy starting right here on our campus," a faculty member explains. When students are keen on testing themselves academically, Lowell students look to Melvin as a coach for the bowl teams in academics, science and marine science. And when it comes to promoting a healthy social environment at Lowell—the type of school where demands and expectations that students, faculty and administrators place on themselves can run exceedingly high—Melvin also takes a direct role as a member of the union building committee at the school.

She describes her labs as open-ended inquiry, and students are experiencing the "first time in their academic careers where they really don't know what they are going to get with their results." It rarely gets better for a teacher, she says, than knowing, "I may have opened up their 'aha moment' "—along with a few windows.

Erika Wozniak
Teacher, Oriole Park School, Chicago
Chicago Teachers Union

Passionate. Brave. Articulate. The adjectives can pile up quickly when people bring up Erika Wozniak. But press Wozniak about her style of speaking up and out—for kids, colleagues and public schools—and the fifth-grade science teacher concocts an entirely new formula: "strategic troublemaker."

For the past 12 years, Wozniak has taught in Chicago Public Schools, finding ways to take public discussion of the urban education challenge to the granular level of the classroom. Her commentaries have been published in the Chicago Tribune. She's been in campaign ads for local candidates running on a strong school platform, and she even hosts a monthly stage show called "Girl Talk with Erika Wozniak."

Although she could probably write her own ticket on any path she chooses in life, Wozniak says there was never any doubt what that path would be: She loves helping her students discover through science the richness of inquiry, of being unafraid to try and fail, understanding there is value in that process. With science, "you have to explore and fail—and learn from that failure," explains Wozniak, a CPS mentor teacher and a member of the Educator and Licensure Board for the state Board of Education.

She also spearheaded a successful campaign to stop taxpayer money needed for public schools from bankrolling a new basketball arena for DePaul University, her alma mater. She's worked as a local union representative for most of her career, serving so aggressively in one building that it cost her a chance to return for the next year. But that aggressive union stand also has its rewards—it's why her school is moving to honor the contract's class-size limits. When she walked in a classroom and saw only 26 kids, rather than the 36 she had worked with in prior years, the sight was so overwhelming, she had to sneak into the restroom to wipe away a few tears. "She is absolutely unafraid to stand up for the rights of her students and for the future of public education," one colleague says