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It's rare that Serena Hampton-Dunn isn't working late hours at Gulf Coast High School or filling her weekend days with planning for her students.

But it was all worth it when a smiling face placed a shiny gold apple in her hands on Tuesday.

Hampton-Dunn, who teaches 10th grade world history, was one of six Golden Apple award winners who watched their classrooms grow in numbers as visitors greeted them with celebrity-like status. 

"It's the product of the work that I've done," Hampton-Dunn said. 

Champions For Learning, a Collier-based education foundation started in 1990, awards the celebrated apples annually from a crop of 52 Teachers of Distinctions picked by each Collier County public school. 

The nonprofit organization's selection committee then honors a half-dozen teachers or so for their best practices and passion in teaching.

Each teacher receives a grant of up to $5,000 from Suncoast Credit Union and a $500 cash award from the Mary Ingram Fund of the Columbus Foundation.

Hampton-Dunn's practice highlights deep dives into conversations through connecting small groups of desks, or "pods," for students to talk about topics.

"I have to push them into conversation," Hampton-Dunn said. 

She wants to prepare her students for higher education by starting more in-depth communication in high school, she said. 

Who is your school's Teacher of Distinction?: Champions For Learning released the list

"When we hired her a couple years ago, I just knew she would be a Golden Apple winner," said Joseph Mikulski, Gulf Coast High School's principal.

Mikulski said Hampton-Dunn's students enjoy going to her class, which speaks to her values and practices. 

Her daughters, Samantha,16, and Zoë, 14, said watching their mom be celebrated for her hard work made them proud.

"She's very intimate with her kids and she's always trying to help them get better," Samantha said.

The two made their ways to Hampton-Dunn's classroom, which wasn't too tough, since both girls attend Gulf Coast High.

Theresa Golden

Theresa Golden, like her name, received her "golden" status after 17 years as a teacher.

For Golden, who teaches language arts and social studies at Veterans Memorial Elementary, her award brought her back to when she first thought about becoming a teacher as a second-grade student.

"Teaching is a work of the heart, it's not a science," Golden said. "You get so much in return from them."

Golden, whose practice focuses on student leadership that helps students identify goals and reach them, plans to explore her future in education to help share knowledge with other educators.

"It (the Golden Apple) represents how good they are and how important they are to the school," Marcus Fabars, 10, said.

Marcus, and several of Golden's students, said they weren't surprised by Golden's award at all. They expected it. 

Eileen Fuentes

Third-grader Brianna Guerrero, 9, had a friend pinch her arm just to be sure she wasn't dreaming after her teacher, Eileen Fuentes, was handed her award.

"We got the Golden Apple," Fuentes' class shouted at Sabal Palm Elementary.

Fuentes teared up while reflecting on her accomplishment.

In her classroom, Fuentes implements metacognition so her students "think about their thinking," which leads to better communication and learning, she said.

"I try to get to know every single one of them," Fuentes said. "I try to figure out what's important to them and how I can reach them."

David Stehlin

Immokalee High School junior Ariana Gallegos said her U.S. History teacher, David Stehlin, "tries to make everything understandable."

"He really tries to help us understand that there were things before you and it's important to know them because there will be things after you," Gallegos said. 

Stehlin frequently brings empathy into his classroom discussions to "make a connection" to the present day. He said the award helps him feel comfortable with his practices by knowing other people are noticing. 

"It's a confirmation, a validation of what I've been doing," Stehlin said. 

Sarah Bratcher

Sarah Bratcher's fifth-grade students at Lake Park Elementary often performs rap battles when they aren't belting out what caused the American Revolution to the tune of "We are never ever getting back together" by Taylor Swift. 

"It's proven that your brain will remember things the more it hears it," Bratcher said. "That's really where I hear the power of music."

Her practice, which led to her being honored as a Golden Apple recipient, helps students retain knowledge while it unites them.

"It's probably a best practice we should look more at," said Chris Marker, Lake Park Elementary's principal.

Marker, who has worked with Bratcher throughout all of her eight years at Lake Park, said her "magical gift" for teaching was evident at the start of her career.

Elizabeth Garcia

After Manatee Middle School teacher Elizabeth Garcia was awarded her Golden Apple and all of the crowd left, she went back to work. 

"I truly love what I do," Garcia said. 

Garcia teaches language arts and global perspectives, which integrate her practice "where students are responsible for their own learning." Her students are learning by doing, like through a classroom debate rather than a planned essay, she said. 

Garcia, who grew up in Collier schools, said she watched teachers receive the award and she cannot believe it's her turn to be honored.

"Growing up I always heard, 'Golden Apple, Golden Apple'," Garcia said. "Never in a million years did I think I would be a Golden Apple teacher."

The Naples Daily News is a major sponsor of Champions For Learning's Golden Apple awards.

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com. Please consider subscribing to support journalism in your own backyard. 

More: It's Golden Apples day! See which Collier teachers are getting awards

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Six Collier County teachers got the surprise of a lifetime Tuesday as Champions For Learning handed out shiny Golden Apples, which are viewed like Oscars for educators. Wochit

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