News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Rocio French, dean and lead instructor at the Avon Park Youth Academy, was honored as state teacher of 2012 by the Department of Juvenile Justice.
published: Friday, November 09, 2012
When teaching saves lives
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
AVON PARK -- Teaching of any kind requires knowledge, insight, patience, persistence, and a good sense of humor. This is even truer when the students being taught have no use for education and think teachers are patsies, working for fool wages.
This is why the Department of Juvenile Justice honors teachers who work with failing or at-risk students in schools designed for those who have already dropped out or gotten into trouble.
Every year the department recognizes a teacher of the year from each of its five regions. Then it chooses of those teachers a DJJ State Teacher of the Year.
Rocio French, dean and lead instructor at the Avon Park Youth Academy, is the DJJ's selection for its 2012 state title. French didn't expect the honor. "Being such a small community I didn't think people would notice what we're doing," she said. "It's wonderful to be recognized that way." She added APYA has had success helping its students acquire GEDs and high school diplomas.
French, who teaches math and intensive reading, is responsible for 66 students, whom she teaches in groups of 22, each for two hours a day. Sixty percent of her students, all adolescent males of middle or high school age, have learning disabilities, she said.
French is one of those teachers capable of breaking through a troubled young man's armor and igniting a desire to change and grow.
"I have very high expectations," she said. "We are all capable of learning."
Having set the expectation, she provides the routine and structure needed to help a chaotic young mind find stability and develop trust.
French credits APYA's administration for making her work possible. "Their support gives me strength," she said, "I really feel they keep my back safe. I can make my own syllabus and have the technology I need to teach -- like smart boards and computers and software. I can change activities every 20 minutes, moving students from large group to small group to individual projects."
French said the boys do not have much experience in being treated with kindness. Many have a roughness, she said, "but they are still kids, you can see it in their eyes." She never yells or bullies, she said, but she doesn't make exceptions to the rules either.
Instead she constantly prods them. When they complain about hard work, she replies, "I'm not just your teacher, I'm your coach. You have to exercise your brain just like you do your body. When you feel pain, you're doing something right."
She lives for the excitement of seeing a student put his world together. "Some boys have been out of school for years. It's hard to reach them, but when they click in the classroom, when they realize someone really cares and then take an interest in their own future I can use that to their advantage."
French is originally from Lima, Peru. She studied and taught at the Universidad de San Martin de Porros. Arriving in Florida with her husband, from whom she is now divorced, French went back to school to re-certify her teaching credentials in this country. Along the way she expanded her certifications, becoming a certified reading specialist, among other specialties, not just to help her students, but to improve her own English. She joined the APYA staff in 2004.
Used to teaching subject matter for itself alone, French now uses subject matter to teach her students how to learn. "It's completely different and has changed my perspective," she said. "It's quite a challenge, but it is never boring or routine."
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