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Great teachers challenge their students—to try harder, to dream bigger. But the best teachers also face challenges: underfunded schools, students with difficult home lives, language barriers. The winners of PEOPLE's second Teacher of the Year contest have excelled against the odds, from upending the low expectations with which special-needs students are often dismissed to standing strong after high waters wiped out a community. Congratulations to the class of 2013!

JOHN HERBER

Science

VALENCIA ROBINSON

Reading

ART ALMQUIST

Theater

MARY KURT-MASON

Special Education

MARSHA DIONISIO

Fourth Grade

RADAMES GALARZA

ELISSA GUARNERO

Bilingual Teaching Team

BRENDA MARTINEZ

THE SUPPORTIVE SURVIVOR

VALENCIA ROBINSON, 40 | New Smyrna Beach Middle School, Fla.

As a youngster in the Florida Panhandle town of Marianna, Robinson struggled with speech problems and reading comprehension. "I didn't realize it was a disability then. I thought I was just dumb," she says. Thanks to support from her educator mom, Betty, "I started reading and understanding, and I thought, 'You know what? I am capable.'" It's the same message she delivers daily to her intensive-reading students, many of whom have had challenges well beyond the classroom, including poverty, homelessness, domestic violence or abuse. For Jessica-Ann Lee, 12, dealing with her parents' divorce, Robinson has offered a comforting ear. "She listens to all of my problems," says the seventh grader. "I can trust her." And she does more than just listen: In the past she and her husband, Jeffrey, have raised funds or paid for everything from school supplies to utility bills for needy families, as well as helping to arrange a free mammogram for a student's mother. A breast cancer survivor herself, the mom of four encourages her students to make healthy lifestyle choices. "I will not let my students eat junk food in my class," says Robinson, a yoga devotee. "I need their brains working!" To motivate reluctant learners, she embraces a techno-savvy approach in the classroom, applying for more than $20,000 in grants to purchase laptops, e-readers and tablets. "Often, if the school is going to get new technology, it goes to the advanced classes," she says. "But these are the kids who need it. I was just like them. They need someone to fight for them."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"When the light switch turns on. In a lot of instances, it may take the entire year for them to be like, 'Oh, I get it!' It is a wonderful feeling"

THE TEAM THAT SAID ¡SE PUEDE!

ELISSA GUARNERO, BRENDA MARTINEZ, RADAMES GALARZA | A.L.B.A. Elementary School, Milwaukee

In 2003 Guarnero, Martinez and Galarza all taught at another school, where students who spoke Spanish "were treated as though their culture and language were liabilities instead of assets," says Martinez, who, as a child, watched teachers segregate Spanish-speaking kids from others on the playground. She and her colleagues believed that "when children feel safe and nurtured in an environment that celebrates who they are, they perform at a greater level." So 10 years ago they banded together and led a group of parents in petitioning the school board for a charter. "Bilingualism, with cultural relevance and parental involvement, is a mixture for success," says Guarnero. All three now run the school and also teach at Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes, where 400 youngsters start the day by saying the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish. With a rigorous curriculum and fine-arts classes, the students are beating the odds—and state standards. For years A.L.B.A.'s math scores have surpassed the state average. One downside? It's hard to let go. "We cry when the kids graduate," says Galarza, "but once we hear how well they're doing in middle and high school, we know we've made a real difference."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"Meeting parents outside the classroom in the morning. I love seeing them grow as community leaders"

—RADAMES GALARZA

SOWING A LOVE OF SCIENCE

JOHN HERBER, 38 | Oakcrest Elementary School, Pensacola, Fla.

Officially, Herber is the fifth-grade science teacher at this school where nearly every student qualifies for a free lunch. Unofficially he is much more. With no funds for sports, he volunteers to coach football and drives players to games in his car. He stays late to tutor kids who need it and helps peers when they butt up against difficult pupils. "His firm, quiet way helps many of our toughest cases get back to learning," says colleague Sara Rabb. "He has the respect of every teacher." But Herber's joy is making science fun. Three years ago he dug up a patch of grass behind his classroom for a garden to teach plant and butterfly life cycles. This led to a culinary club and a program where fifth graders shared what they learned with the youngest kids, turning "disengaged students into peer leaders," says Herber. "If they can teach someone else, I know I've been successful." He has: Before he began five years ago, 16 percent of the fifth grade tested at grade level in science. Last year 66 percent met or exceeded expectations, including those with learning challenges. Too modest to think he can do it all, Herber calls in experts. "We learned about honeybees from a beekeeper and principles of flight from a pilot. My goal is to ensure students don't know they're disadvantaged."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"When my students see how science applies to their lives. Once they find an answer, they get so happy and proud, it makes the day worthwhile—all day"

HER FOURTH 'R' IS RISK-TAKING

MARY KURT-MASON, 59 | Pagosa Springs High School, Colo.

Joanne Irons still recalls the evening her son Zack, then 16, returned from a two-day rafting trip. His teacher had persuaded some skeptical—and admittedly nervous—parents and administrators to let her take her class of special-needs students on the San Juan River. "He changed," Irons says of Zack, who was coping with learning disabilities and is now at a local college. "He had this confidence I'd never seen before." In 10 years working with kids who have serious developmental delays, are nonverbal, use wheelchairs or struggle with anger issues, Kurt-Mason has found that the confidence they gain while kayaking, skiing and horseback riding leads to learning. After an adventure, "kids approach something like a math problem with less fear and frustration," she says. "If you want to grow, you have to take risks. My students have the right to take risks like everyone else." Besides focusing on academics, she helps with social skills; she has seen her alumni crowned homecoming king, go to college, get jobs. "At the beginning of the year, she'll say, 'Here are my goals for each of my kids.' I think, 'There's no way she can pull it off,'" says principal David Hamilton. "But come May, she has."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"Sharing a good belly laugh with my students or watching a student try really hard to do something that he has never been able to do before"

STRONGER THAN THE STORM

MARSHA DIONISIO, 62 | Hugh J. Boyd Jr. Elementary, Seaside Heights, N.J.

After Superstorm Sandy destroyed her Jersey Shore community on Oct. 29, 2012, Dionisio took a first-things-first approach when, a week later, she reunited with her fourth graders in a borrowed high school gym: "Food and clothing. We knew they had nothing." Dionisio herself had only what she'd crammed into a tote bag when she fled. "It was scary for all of us," recalls Dionisio, who lost the use of her home for the rest of the school year and lived with her daughter. With her lesson plans growing moldy in the shuttered classroom, this 29-year teaching veteran had to get creative. With help she rounded up copies of one book—Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret—for each student. From that she taught everything: Scenes of magic tricks became lessons in probability; Hugo's job tending clocks inspired students to learn how the mechanisms work. A social studies unit took them to the novel's 1930s Paris setting and had the kids—almost all of them from families whose income depends on boardwalk tourism—tasting croissants for the first time. "Marsha adapted and conquered," says principal Chris Raichle. "We didn't know if the children would make it through," says mom Donna Fontaine, a nursing aide who, with her son Marquis, moved from a homeless shelter to a relative's apartment to a FEMA motel. "Then there was Ms. D, and this light shined."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"In the morning, when I see them come in and they're so fresh and alive and like little sponges. They're just waiting to find out what's going to happen today"

THE DRAMA KING

ART ALMQUIST, 45 | Tucson High Magnet School, Ariz.

READER'S CHOICE

It's nearly 6:30 p.m., and the drama teacher has already logged 11 hours in his subterranean classroom. "Just play the scene," he advises his young actors rehearsing The Musical of Musicals: The Musical. "Don't try to be funny. Just play the truth of it." For 17 years Almquist has motivated thousands of kids to find the truth behind their lines and in their lives. Setting aside his tireless dedication, that they even have a stage, lights and a clean auditorium is thanks to this Tucson native, who has raised more than $125,000 to build facilities for his cutting-edge theater program, rarely found at a high school. His students often make headlines with twice-yearly musicals and dramas that tackle issues they care about: AIDS, the environment and immigration. Adolescence can be "a lousy time," admits the self-described former "nerd," whose own high school drama instructor inspired him to teach. He says he isn't trying to make Hollywood stars; he wants to instill passion for any future a student imagines. "I try to teach these kids that they matter—that the stories they want to tell matter." That message came at a perfect time for Chess McWilliams, 17, who had a rough transition moving here last year from Chicago. "I didn't have any friends," says McWilliams, who has a lead in an upcoming musical. "Now this place is like home to me." Says his grateful mom: Almquist is "the teacher every parent hopes their child will experience."

The Best Part of My Day Is ...

"When my students create an absolutely hilarious improv out of nothing that just slays everyone in the room"