New York City has named 17 teachers winners of Big Apple Awards, a competitive prize that rewards “exceptional success” in instruction, impact on student learning, and overall contributions to school communities.

The winners were culled from a pool of more than 6,500 nominees.

The winners include a special education teacher who had her students’ artwork exhibited at MoMA, a dual language teacher who wrote her own Chinese literacy curriculum, and an early education teacher who uses an app to communicate with parents.

Each was surprised by education department officials who presented the award in their classrooms.

“I learned guitar in elementary school from my teacher Mr. Valenzuela who empowered me, taught me the value of rehearsal and poise, and believed I could do anything I set my mind to,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “The Big Apple Award winners exemplify this love of teaching, and I could not be prouder of the 17 recipients selected this year and all of our teachers who bring out the best in our children every single day.”

Here are the winners:

Nina Berman (Early Childhood Education Teacher, LYFE Program at Pathways to Graduation Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn)

Nina Berman began teaching as a paraprofessional in the LYFE program when she was 18 years old. Realizing that she “needed to find innovative ways to connect and engage families,” Ms. Berman employed a new online app that allowed her to interact with parents on a daily basis in order to strengthen the connection between home and school, which has now been adopted in all LYFE classrooms.  

Nicole Chu (Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, The Computer School, Manhattan)

Nicole Chu empowers her students by expanding their learning beyond the limits of their classroom. Three years ago, she took the initiative to start an “all school meeting” where a rotating group of 8th grade leaders and faculty facilitators meet monthly to discuss important issues that students wanted to address. Ms. Chu explains: “I only hope the lasting message is as loud and clear as it was for me: your voice matters. Together with your peers, you make a difference in your community.”

Damen Davis (6th Grade English and Language Arts Teacher, I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service, Bronx)

To overcome challenges his students faced outside of the classroom and at home, Damen Davis began reaching out to school support staff, contacted his students’ former elementary school teachers, and their out-of-school coaches, and when appropriate, met with parents. His students began to see him everywhere and they saw the investment and belief he had in them. Trust began to build which in turn led to students taking academic risks, and their efforts were met with significant growth and increased academic successes.

Sandra Fajgier (Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Pre-K Center at Bishop Ford, Brooklyn)

Sandy Fajgier exemplifies best-teaching practices in early childhood instruction. Her classroom is a model for other pre-kindergarten programs because of the carefully curated materials used to spark the minds and imaginations of her students. As one parent shared: “She is an extremely talented, dedicated teacher with an inspiring classroom that is always fresh with new inquiries and activities.”

Marisol FitzMaurice (1st Grade Teacher, Concourse Village Elementary School, Bronx)

Marisol FitzMaurice began teaching 15 years ago because she wanted to change the lives of the young students in the Bronx community where she grew up. “I believe that my compassion for young children and enthusiasm for learning creates an attitude that influences my students to want to learn and become critical thinkers.” By involving students in all facets of the learning process, Ms. FitzMaurice gives students the foundation to take responsibility for their academic successes at an early age.

Stephanie Flete (4th Grade Mathematics Teacher, Urban Scholars Community School, Bronx)

Working as a Model Teacher at her school, Stephanie Flete works to find innovative ways to provide high-quality instruction for her students and to share her best practices with her school community. After one of her students faced a mental health crisis, Ms. Flete began developing social-emotional supports given the high incidence of trauma and emotional issues confronting her students. “No matter how strong your classroom management is or how positive a classroom culture is, there is always room for growth and support,” said Ms. Flete.

Mauricio Gonzalez (Science/Career and Technical Education: Marine Biology Teacher, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Manhattan)

Under Mauricio Gonzalez’s direction students are given relevant, real world environmental problems to solve independently and are taught to ask probing questions and research before making decisions. This hands on learning approach is especially engaging as students gain independence and confidence. As a result, Mr. Gonzalez’s students include a winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship for their work on restoring eel grass to the New York Harbor and multiple research grant recipients.

Michelle Jennings (Middle School Science Teacher, Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy, Brooklyn)

As a first generation Haitian-American, Michelle Jennings understands the doors that a good education can open for her students. Her current student population and community are of Caribbean and African-American descent, some of whom are the first in their families to go to school in America. She serves as a mentor teacher, has been selected to be an Urban Advantage Lead Teacher and was recently selected as one of five teachers to win the 2017 “Excellence In Education Award” presented at UN Headquarters during the annual CTAUN conference.

Gregg Kwarta (5th Grade Teacher, P.S. 232 The Lindenwood School, Queens)

“A teacher’s true success is not measured by how children grow in the classroom but by how you affect their growth outside the classroom and their values and actions,” Gregg Kwarta explained. That philosophy guides his teaching practices and his dedication to his students. To further connect and empower families, Mr. Kwarta sends welcome postcards to families and monthly newsletters to highlight each student in the class.

Jae Lee (High School Korean Language Teacher, Bayside High School, Queens)

Jae Lee dedicates himself to the celebration of the Korean culture. He has established multiple partnerships with groups like the Korean Consulate and the Korean Education Center, while also creating the Bayside Lunar New York celebration. Mr. Lee also connects his students to experiential learning opportunities through his role as a Work Based Learning Coordinator.

Michelle Lee (5th Grade Dual Language Teacher, P.S. 163 Flushing Heights, Queens)

A dual language teacher for 11 years, Michelle Lee is a senior mentor for new teachers. She wrote her own Chinese dual language literacy curriculum with the DOE’s Office of Periodic Assessment, and started a spelling bee contest for P.S. 163 in Queens where students were encouraged and inspired to take on challenges to expand their vocabulary.

Amie Robinson (Special Education Visual Arts Teacher, P.S. K077, Brooklyn)

Amie Robison’s visual arts instruction gives students with diverse learning and communication needs a way to express themselves. Ms. Robinson’s students have had their artwork exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn and Queens art museums, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Mike Rosario (7th and 8th Grade Physical Education Teacher, P.S. 279 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr., Bronx)

Mike Rosario’s dedication goes beyond the gymnasium and is evident in his commitment to the wellness of his students. Mr. Rosario said that recently he met a mother “who was crying tears of joy because her child was no longer diagnosed as pre-diabetic. She attributed this directly to my class and my work with the student in the fitness club that I lead before and after school.”

Raya Sam (6th Grade Mathematics ICT teacher, Hamilton Grange Middle School, Manhattan)

Raya Sam came to the U.S. in the first grade as a refugee from Cambodia, and her experience with a caring teacher who helped her adjust to her new home inspired her to become a teacher. In addition to teaching and facilitating IEP meetings across the school, Ms. Sam founded and coaches the school’s cheerleading team, and edits their annual yearbook and school newspaper.

Ryuma Tanaka (English as a Second Language Teacher, I.S. 145 Joseph Pulitzer, Queens)

As the son of an immigrant single mother, Ryuma Tanaka relates his own experience of being bilingual and bicultural with those of his immigrant students, many of whom are new to the United States. Mr. Tanaka works to empower his students while appreciating the experiences that may affect them socially, emotionally and academically, because “when students feel that their teacher cares about their culture and language, then a trusting relationship can be built with them,” he said.

Alberto Toro (Middle School Instrumental Music Teacher, I.S. 007 Elias Bernstein, Staten Island)

Alberto Toro knows the power music education has in shaping his students’ love of the art form and the positive impact it can have on students’ overall learning. As a student, Mr. Toro says his high school band director taught him about culture, history, integrity and character. He’s now teaching those same lessons to his students, whose sense of partnership, confidence and soulfulness increase throughout the year—skills they incorporate into their everyday lives.

Ashley Wilson (Kindergarten Teacher, Success Academy Charter School—Harlem 3, Manhattan)

No moment is wasted in Ashley Wilson’s classroom. In the morning meeting, students share about themselves and their lives to help create a supportive community. Ms. Wilson takes opportunities to model positive behaviors such as how to respond when someone is struggling. “By showing my students that I care about who they are inside and outside of the classroom, I am able to develop the trust necessary for students to take academic risks,” she said.