NAPLES — Invaluable.
Part of speech: adjective.
Definition: Too valuable to measure; priceless.
Use: “Silvia Torres is invaluable to her students, her school and her district.”
It is more than just a vocabulary word Torres’ students learned in class this week. To them, it was perfectly illustrated when Torres, a third-grade teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School in Bonita, was presented a Golden Apple Award in March.
Torres, 50, is one of six teachers from Lee County recognized through the two-decade-old program to honor educators for inspiring children and providing a model for other teachers. She was the only finalist recognized from the Bonita Springs-Estero area.
On Friday night, Torres joined fellow winners from Lee County for a dinner at the Harborside Event Center that officially commemorated the 22nd Annual Golden Apple Teacher Recognition Dinner. In all, 69 teachers of distinction and 25 finalists were recognized through the program, which was established by the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools.
A visit to Torres’ classroom makes it clear why she made the final cut.
She shepherds her class of 17 children almost seamlessly from one lesson to another, working through spelling and vocabulary words before leading a song about nouns and moving on to a game reinforcing possessive pronouns. And that is all before 11 a.m.
“She’s a cool teacher,” said Valeria Rodriguez, 9. “She makes learning fun. She does all of these games that make you learn — she got the Golden Apple because she deserved it.”
Torres’ energy level matches that of her students. As she joins them in a game where partners assign a possessive apostrophe to the correct word in a sentence, she challenges her partner by placing the apostrophe in the wrong place, inviting him to correct her. When she gets one right, she dances in a little circle before throwing her hand in the air for a high-five.
Thus goes the pace of learning in Torres’ class, where the students laugh and move a lot, but sit up and pay attention when Torres demands it.
“It’s a different generation of students,” she said, talking about the energy level in her class. “We can’t teach in the same way we learned in school. As a teacher, you don’t want to go through a workshop where halfway through, you fall asleep.”
As a tool, Torres rewards the students when they complete a lesson, inviting them to do a very quiet, almost whispered version of the funky chicken dance. After another, she gets them out of their seats, and tells everyone to cross their arms over their heads, cross their feet, wiggle their fingers and take deep breaths. She calls it “criss-crossing your hemispheres.”
“We’re preparing our brains for new learning,” says Torres over sighs and giggles.
Torres teaches a critical grade in Florida; third grade is the first to take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, which can determine whether students move on to the next grade or must be held back.
“She made the FCAT really easy,” said Valeria. “I think I passed the FCAT because of Mrs. Torres. I was really nervous at first, but then I was like, ‘Mrs. Torres already showed us this. I can do this.’”
Valeria is one of thousands of students across Southwest Florida who feel apprehensive when faced with the prospect of a single test that can make or break the school year. At a glance, it seems Torres inspires the students to respect themselves as much as they seem to respect each other.
“What I do is, first, set the tone,” said Torres. “At the very first minute, I tell them we’re a family and we are going to be together the whole year. There is never a mean word used in this class. ... Respect is the No. 1 word in this classroom.”
Torres, originally from Argentina, moved to the United States in 1985. She grew up speaking English, attending a bilingual school at her mother’s insistence.
“I think it’s the most wonderful thing,” Torres said of learning a second language. “I never understood when I was going to use that (as a child). I guess my mother had a vision.”
Now Torres has her own vision.
“I hope in the future to help teachers, especially new teachers,” Torres said. “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.”
Still, Torres said she was “shocked” when she learned she had won a Golden Apple.
Not to be pessimistic, she said, but “You’re always thinking someone else will get it. It gave me assurance that what I’m doing is the right thing.”