PEOPLE chooses five for Teacher of the Year

BySharon Cotliar

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Applications flooded the PEOPLE offices when we asked you to nominate candidates for our first Teacher of the Year competition. PEOPLE’s editors – and our advisory board of education professionals – were blown away. Our first class of winners includes five extraordinary teachers who inspired us with their commitment to excellence and to making a measurable difference in their students’ lives.

These teachers have all gone above and beyond their job descriptions and achieved real results. But more than that, they’ve helped their students succeed in ways many thought were unimaginable. As musician and education activist John Legend, who was among our advisors, says, “An effective school, with great teachers, can change the trajectory of a kid’s life.”

We’re happy to honor five who do so. They are:

Robert J. Vega, the band director at Rauner College Prep in Chicago, a campus of the Noble Street Charter School.

When the school’s only other music teacher left in 2010, just before the academic year started, Vega volunteered to become a one-man music department to more than 350 students, many of whom had never held an instrument before. Today, his orchestra routinely ranks among the best in Chicago, and his jazz band placed fifth last year at the Berklee College of Music’s High School Jazz Fest. “This isn’t a job to me,” says Vega. ” I love coming to school every day to teach music.”

Jennifer Bohn teaches leadership development to at-risk students and is the coordinator of the International Baccalaureate program at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida.

Bohn believes the key to helping students succeed is to show them that “someone cares about them.” So, she reaches beyond the school walls. “When you go to their homes,” she says, “you can tell what’s going on and what other influences they have in their lives.” In her 18 years of teaching, Bohn – who many students call “mom” – has amassed an impressive number of success stories. One of them, Latoya Mack, now 30, is a college graduate and is about to start a master’s degree in education. Says Mack, “She insisted I would not fail.”

Elizabeth Curran, a special education teacher at Richards Elementary School in Newport, New Hampshire.

Curran writes and illustrates (some with photos of her three-legged dog) small hand-made books that are sometimes the only reading material students in her poor, rural school have at home. “In order to learn to read, children need lots and lots of books,” says Curran, who has helped raise reading aptitude. She has also created an after-school reading buddies program that has reached 500 children and their families. “Reading is the key to success not just in school but also in later life,” she says.

Arwen Imai Matthews teaches introductory physics and chemistry to 8th graders at KIPP 3D Academy Middle School in Houston.

Described as a “science magician” by her school principal, Matthews, 31, has sparked a love for science in hundreds of students – many of whom she continues to assist with homework after school and beyond graduation. “Really, everything about Arwen makes her outstanding,” school principal Alison Cumbley says. “We have a legitimate science department, with students doing hands-on labs every day and the best resources available. That’s absolutely because of Arwen and what she’s done to inspire other science teachers.”

Brian Copes, a pre-engineering teacher at Calera High School in Calera, Alabama.

Copes has just one rule for his pre-engineering students: “I want them to realize there’s a world outside of themselves,” he says, “and their job is to make the world a better place.” So last summer, Copes took 10 of his students to Honduras, where they fit 14 amputees with artificial legs the students had built from Toyota Corolla Parts. “For many of them, it was their first time out of the country, and certainly the first time they ever went to a third-world country,” says Copes, who is planning another trip for this summer. “After the first amputee was fit with a prosthetic, one of my students ran up to me shouting, ‘It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!’ That’s when I knew the lesson had been learned.