They blazed trails, created a space where students could express their fears, built a sense of community and persevered despite personal heartbreak as they walked a unique tightrope between in-person learning and online classes.
They are the four Binks Forest Elementary School team members honored during this spring’s Extraordinary Educator Awards, sponsored by the Economic Council of Palm Beach County — teachers Emily MacMillan, Sally Mascia and Brandi Soto, and behavioral health professional Hope Jackson.
The awards were based on nominations and testimonials from parents. Among the county’s nearly 200 schools and more than 12,900 teachers, no other school had more than two honorees, according to the council’s Facebook page.
Of Soto, one parent reflected on the virus-driven wildfire of anxiety that scorched through the spring of 2020: “We have never felt so supported by a teacher. She made us feel stress-free during a time when everyone was switching from brick-and-mortar to online learning! … Thank you so much, dear Mrs. Soto, for the amazing, great teacher you are!”
Soto was very moved by her nomination, let alone winning the award.
“When I saw what some of the parents wrote about me, I cried,” said Soto, who grew up in Palm Beach County and has been teaching for 17 years. “Parent involvement is huge here.”
Soto, a Florida Atlantic University graduate, has been impressed by the Binks Forest faculty ever since arriving at the school eight years ago. “At Binks, going above and beyond is simply in our nature,” she said.
Such an attitude inspired the married mother of two to become a Trailblazer, a school district designation for a teacher who has volunteered for extra training in classroom technology. So, when classes for the district’s 169,000 students went online in March 2020, then returned in the fall in hybrid form — some students in class, some learning online — Soto was well equipped to handle the technical challenges and aid other teachers.
“That’s one thing about our school, teachers lift each other up and support each other,” said MacMillan, another local graduate who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FAU. She has been teaching at Binks Forest for 10 years.
Parents think MacMillan is special, too. One wrote: “Emily exemplified her extreme care during the pandemic… Her sincere love for teaching and her students makes learning exciting.”
MacMillan, a single mother with a 13-year-old son, said the biggest challenge for her over the last 18 months was not technical but emotional.
“I’m big on creating and fostering a classroom community,” she said. “So, the biggest thing was making sure my students felt connected to me and to each other with some of them in the classroom and some of them at home.”
Enthusiasm carrying her forward, MacMillan focused on the idea that everyone is persevering through the challenges together.
“I’m a big believer in lifelong learning, and that my students aren’t there just to learn enough to get through the third grade… These students will talk about this [pandemic experience] for the rest of their lives. They’ll say, ‘Remember the year when?’”
No doubt first-grade teacher Mascia will remember this school year vividly and with no small measure of melancholy, having faced the personal pain of losing her father in September, then her mother in January to COVID-19. Despite traveling to her native Ohio for the funerals, Mascia maintained contact with her students through the Internet.
A teacher at Binks Forest since 1999, Mascia let parents know about the personal losses she had suffered and allowed them to share, or not, with their children as they thought appropriate. “First-graders need consistency,” Mascia said. “I didn’t want the deaths to hamper my teaching.”
Throughout Mascia’s personally challenging year, parents, fellow teachers and the school administration led by Principal Michella Levy were there for her.
“They’re amazing,” said Mascia, a graduate of John Carroll University in Cleveland. “The teachers pull together and support each other, personally and professionally.”
Like several of the teachers, Mascia also gave credit to the school’s very active PTA organization.
In June, Mascia retired after teaching for 35 years in Florida schools. She’s looking forward to spending time with her first grandchild.
Reflecting on the last year and a half, Mascia said, “The children were troopers. They never complained… [But] it was a challenge making sure we reached the kids at home. I’m praying we reached them.”
Parents who wrote to the Economic Council to nominate Mascia are very sure about the calm, steady difference she made: “This past year has been quite different. It has been chaotic and unsettling at times. The pandemic has been plain nerve-racking and stressful, that is, until you reach the classroom door of Ms. Mascia.”
Through all the stress, chaos, uncertainty and fear generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson was there providing emotional outlets for students, information for parents and encouragement for fellow staff members and teachers. And parents noticed, one writing: “Ms. Jackson remained bright throughout this storm of darkness surrounding her students, peers and her family.”
Jackson said her goal was to create a safe space where students could “scream, shout, cry, throw a chair if they need to, then figure out how to deal with what they’re feeling,” she said. “There is no problem so big we can’t help them.”
Of course, providing that space for students still learning from home was a challenge. “I still tried to do it with extra attention, extra check-ins with parents and virtual students,” she said.
One of the keys was letting students act out scenarios of their choosing, she explained.
“Role playing lets the students verbalize about different situations… and learn about what sort of skills are needed to cope with them,” said Jackson, a Belle Glade native who earned degrees from Bethune-Cookman and Shaw universities.
Despite Jackson’s many normal work responsibilities and mothering a blended family of seven ranging in age from 7 to 25, she found the time to write a motivational e-mail each Friday for faculty and staff, underscoring the fact that at Binks Forest, “we’re a team.”