Wellington has established itself as the home of the best and most talented, not only in the areas of equestrian sports, but also in the area of education, where the community is home to some of the best public schools and the most outstanding teachers. Among them is Wellington Landings Middle School fine arts teacher Karen Epstein.
In May, Epstein was named the winner of a William T. Dwyer Award for Excellence in Education, an annual award given to six educators in Palm Beach County. She was honored as the county’s top teacher in the Career Education category for 2019.
The William T. Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education is an annual program of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County Foundation, which recognizes outstanding educators from the area’s public and private schools.
The Dwyer Awards program seeks to increase awareness of the exemplary teaching in Palm Beach County, while supporting educators and schools with financial awards and encouraging residents to promote high standards of excellence in education.
“Teachers in Palm Beach County refer to the Dwyer Awards as the ‘Academy Awards’ of Palm Beach County,” Dwyer Award Coordinator Natalie Carron said.
Teachers were honored this year in six categories: Elementary School Education, Middle School Education, High School Education, Career Education, STEM Education, and Special Programs Education. Next year, there will be a seventh category added, a Dwyer Award for Palm Beach County’s best pre-kindergarten teacher.
Epstein — who teaches courses in audio visual arts, television production and theater at Wellington Landings — just finished her 22nd year working for the Palm Beach County School District, including 15 years in the classroom, of which nine years have been at Wellington Landings.
First, a list of finalists is announced, before a gala awards ceremony. On May 15, Epstein and the five other winners were honored at the 35th annual William T. Dwyer Awards for Excellence in Education ceremony held at the Kravis Center for Performing Arts. Epstein and the other winning educators each received $3,500 and a crystal flame award for their efforts.
While Epstein was thrilled to win the prestigious award, she was equally impressed by the accomplishments of other nominees and finalists.
“There are some amazing teachers in Palm Beach County,” Epstein said. “I was awestruck to hear the credentials of the other teachers.”
It’s a distinct honor to win a Dwyer Award, as nearly 350 Palm Beach County teachers were nominated for the award this year. From there, usually five or six educators per category are named as finalists. The winner of each award is selected by a committee of nearly 80 local business leaders.
According to Wellington Landings Middle School Principal Blake Bennett, Epstein is a worthy Dwyer Award winner.
“Karen Epstein is so dedicated to her students, improving our community and spreading kindness. She works so hard to make sure she meets the needs of all of her students while teaching so much more than curriculum, but how to be productive citizens, while promoting a love of life-long learning,” said Bennett, who just finished her eighth year as the school’s principal. “There is nothing she can’t or won’t do. She had 86 students perform in our play this year, Willy Wonka Jr. Not many people can coordinate 86 middle school students for months to put on an absolutely phenomenal musical that is a great experience for all involved.”
Bennett appreciates Epstein’s work both in and out of the classroom.
“She also makes sure that the culture of our school is always addressed, from her production of our video announcements to her participation in our Gold Level Model Positive Behavior Support Team, and working with our Kindness Ambassadors all over our school and community,” Bennett said of Epstein. “I could never sum up everything she does in a nutshell. She never stops working for her students and our school.”
Epstein, who graduated from Forest Hill High School, attributes her success to a willingness to listen to her students and show some compassion for them.
“I’m really more of a facilitator than a teacher,” said Epstein, herself a mother of three. “I let them find their own path. I have a mix of taught routines and class expectations. It’s important to have a sense of humor, a kind spirit, and be willing to listen to the students when they need someone to talk to about their issues and concerns.”
Epstein realized that she was a little different after being diagnosed with dyslexia as a teenager, which negatively impacted her interest in reading, but not her interest in learning.
“My interest in science fiction led me to science, which helped me with math and reading,” she explained.
While Epstein has had great success as a teacher, becoming a teacher was not her initial focus.
“While in college, I majored in everything at least once — journalism, astronomy, criminal justice, theater, to name a few,” Epstein explained.
In the end, she settled on a business degree, based on advice from one of her grandfathers.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach and her master’s degree in business administration from Walden University. Her teaching certification is in special education (K-12), business education (K-12) and middle grades integrated curriculum.
Wellington Landings Middle School has a track record of producing Dwyer Award-winning teachers, including Sandra Coster in 2008 and Ron Wilber in 2013.
Besides Epstein, two other Wellington teachers were finalists for this year’s Dwyer Awards: Kathy Zangen from Binks Forest Elementary School in the Elementary School Education category and Tracy Sheppard from Elbridge Gale Elementary School in the STEM Education category. They each received $500 and a certificate.
What did Epstein do with her award money? “Well, I had to pay my bills, and then I had my car professionally cleaned and detailed,” Epstein said.