They have transformed students’ lives. Meet the finalists of Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year

Every year, Miami Dade County Public Schools selects a Teacher of the Year.

Every school in the district nominates a teacher. Then, regional directors and superintendents narrow the nominees to four finalists from the North, Central and South regions, and the overall Adult/Technical Colleges and Educational Opportunity & Access.

Finally, the school district announces the winner in a big splash. At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the 2025 Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year ceremony will take place at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center, 711 NW 72nd Ave. To watch the event’s live stream, click here.

But, first, meet the finalists:

North Region: Melissa Abril-Dotel believes in family

Melissa Abril-Dotel, 40, wanted to be a teacher as long as she can remember. But her understanding of the profession as a child was limited, thinking only of writing on the whiteboard and grading papers.

When she got to fifth grade and her mother died, though, she found a new reason, or two rather: Ms. Langley and Mr. Conde, her homeroom teachers at Coral Way Elementary.

“Losing her left a void, and it was teachers who helped me get through it that year. I was a reserved and quiet girl, but they were able to connect with me, like they would leave little post-its with notes of encouragement,” the Miami native told the Herald. “That’s when I realized, ‘Wow, there’s so much power in being a teacher.’ I could possibly change a life by being a teacher.”

Melissa Abril-Dotel, one of four finalists for Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year. She is a teacher at North Beach Elementary.
Melissa Abril-Dotel, one of four finalists for Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year. She is a teacher at North Beach Elementary.

She eventually graduated from Carver Middle School and Coral Gables High School, then earned her bachelor’s in elementary education from Florida State University.

She began teaching in 2008 at Coral Way K-8 Center for a bit, then was transferred to Christina M. Eve Elementary in West Kendall, where she taught third grade for seven years. During that time, she got a master’s in teaching English as a second or foreign language and urban education from Florida International University.

In 2015, she moved to North Beach Elementary because she had just given birth to her daughter and wanted a shorter commute. At North Beach, she taught kindergarten for seven years until she rose to second grade about two years ago.

She remembers a student as a kindergarten teacher who had been expelled for violent behavior from a private school. When he arrived at her classroom, she tried to get to know him first instead of disciplining him. Eventually he behaved.

“After we’ve built relationships, we can start learning,” she said.

And the “learning” happens hands-on. When she teaches them about soil, she takes them to the garden and shows them how to compost. A few months later, students usually come to her after lunch wanting to add their scraps to the compost pile.

“I teach them about a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, and that helps,” she said. “I bring in a potato and a sponge, and I fill the sponge with water to show them that’s the knowledge. That sets the positive environment for them to want to learn and participate.”

Abril-Dotel has become a leader at North Beach, managing the garden and leadingthe student reading challenges.

“I’m really happy,” Abril-Dotel said. “I feel like I don’t work a day in my life.”

Central Region: Nicolas Acosta, a mentor

When he first got the offer to teach at Miami-Dade Schools while he worked in a corporate job, Nicolas Acosta chuckled.

“I thought, ‘No, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to be making the money that I’m making here. I’m not going to take a pay cut,’” he told the Herald.

But then he thought about it more and gave it a shot, because he saw his wife, a teacher, really enjoyed her job and because he wanted to give back to his own high school.

In 2019, Acosta, a Miami native, became a logistics teacher at Miami Springs Senior High School and revolutionized the logistics program there, using his associate’s in civil engineering from Miami Dade College and his bachelor’s in aeronautics with a minor in airport management from the University of Miami.

He also benefited from his experience at Atlas Air and at TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson, a transportation company.

Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year Nominee Nicolas Acosta from Miami Springs Senior High School.
Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year Nominee Nicolas Acosta from Miami Springs Senior High School.

Assisted by a grant from Prologis, the real estate company, the school converted a wood shop on campus into a warehouse space with equipment like forklift simulators, and gave it to Acosta.

Now Acosta, 32, teaches students the theory and then puts it into practice. When they read about shipping and receiving, they go into the warehouse to do it themselves. When they learn about stacking large quantities of identical items onto a pallet for shipping — they do it themselves. When they talk about loading trailers, they load a make-shift trailer rectangle on the floor delineated with cones that Acosta bought from Walmart.

“I try to make the learning as authentic as possible,” he said.

The logistics program has about 200 students and a wait list of 200 others. Once they graduate, they get certificates that allow them to start working immediately.

Recently, a delegation from Nebraska visited his program and in Florida, he rewrote the standards for logistics programs statewide.

Last year, Acosta’s principal tapped him to start an aerospace magnet program, which launched in August and already has about 30 students. Students enroll at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to earn up to 27 college credits, and complete the private pilot test and certificate to fly drones.

He set up the classroom with aviation memorabilia, including passenger seats from a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft he got himself.

Perhaps most importantly, Acosta mentors his students. Once they graduate, he stays in touch, offering advice if they want to buy a house or enroll in their company’s benefit program.

Just the other day, he met a former student, now 21, for a beer.

South Region: Alina Hughes Robinson keeps it real

Alina Hughes Robinson, 32, cares about her students’ curriculum, but she cares way more about their future.

Whenever she teaches her lessons in hospitality and business at Robert Morgan Educational Center, she wonders how she could help them after they graduate. Instead of parroting the basics of running a company, she encouraged her students to open their own business off campus called Pirate’s Treasure, in which they sell food, handle inventory, contact vendors and build marketing plans.

It’s why she organizes field trips to events like the Miami Open and Miami Heat games, and Universal Studios. They’ve also traveled to Texas and California. And why she invites guest speakers from large companies to talk about their jobs.

“I try to show them a world beyond the traditional classroom,” Hughes Robinson told the Herald. “I also like to break down the barrier between the theory and what it’s actually like to do that.”

Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year finalist Alina Hughes Robinson from Robert Morgan Educational Center.
Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year finalist Alina Hughes Robinson from Robert Morgan Educational Center.

Hughes Robinson can do that because just a few years ago she was a hospitality professional herself.

After graduating from David Fairchild Elementary, South Miami Middle and South Miami Senior High, the Miami native majored in hospitality and tourism at the University of Central Florida.

After graduating she worked at a Marriott resort in Orlando and then Doral. In 2015, she worked at PGA National Resort, a hotel in Palm Beach Gardens, but got laid off a year later.

That’s when she began substituting at Miami Dade County Public Schools. A few months later, she got a call from her former coach who now teaches basketball at Robert Morgan, telling her about an opening for a hospitality teacher. She tried it and fell in love with the hospitality program.

“I felt like I was still doing what I loved but in a job that was a lot more rewarding,” she said.

She now leans on her previous experience to help her students, especially when trying to connect them to summer internships. Also, because she worked at Chick-fil-A during her high school years, she reached out to the Chick-fil-A Academy as a teacher; they now facilitate workshops on how to be a good leader.

Overall, Hughes Robinson focuses on teaching her students what they won’t learn in books about business. She encourages girls, for instance, to enter fields where they may be a minority.

“I tell them, it’s OK for you to be in those space. You’re just as worthy,” she said.

Alternative Education: William Torres, a forever learner

William Torres, now 63, was about 40 when he went back to college.

“I walked in and thought, ‘Oh, everyone here is so young,’” he told the Herald.

But the age difference didn’t deter him from getting his bachelor’s in liberal arts from Florida International University. In fact, he went on to get two master’s in education after that.

Maybe Torres excelled as an older student because he has always grown outside his comfort zone. When he was 14, his Cuban family migrated to Miami and he didn’t speak a word in English — “at a time when nobody spoke Spanish in Miami,” he said. But he managed to learn at Cutler Bay Middle School and then graduated from Miami Springs Senior High.

Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year Finalist William Torres from Robert Morgan Educational Center & Technical College.
Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year Finalist William Torres from Robert Morgan Educational Center & Technical College.

He wanted to go to the Miami Art Institute at the time but couldn’t afford it, so he enrolled at the Robert Morgan Educational Center and Technical College and got a certificate for graphic design.

After working his way up in the industry, he eventually landed a gig as the lead concept artist for Cartoon Network in 1997. There, he was part of the team that finalized the design of the Power Puff Girls and Dexter’s Lab.

“I loved every minute of it,” he said.

But after a restructuring in 2001, Cartoon Network laid him off, along with a bunch of other colleagues, one of whom now works at Disney Studios. At that point, Torres was already teaching part time at his alma mater, the Robert Morgan Educational Center and Technical College, so he decided to pursue that full time and go back to college.

“I come from a family of educators; a lot of my family members are teachers so we always talked about it,” he said. “So by then I had realized I did it well.”

Two decades later, Torres confidently says he would never go back to the industry.

“There’s no money in the world that would make me go back to that,” he said. “The smiles you see when students graduate and get their degrees, those are priceless.”

He adores teaching because he can learn at the same time, he said, and he considers himself a life-long learner. Instead of shying away from new technology, he embraces it. For instance, now he’s learning everything he can about artificial intelligence.

His openness to new ideas has allowed him to stay up-to-date in an ever-evolving field that he entered before computers existed. He trained himself on Photoshop and Autodesk software like Maya, and now he trains his students in those plus 3D animation.

But he tells them to teach him what they know.

“I tell them, I want you to be better than me,” he said. “So they always bring me apps or things they find, and show them to me. I love that. I love challenges.”

Rookie of the year

The school district also recognizes a Rookie Teacher of the Year. Here are this year’s finalists:

North – Diaunte Jenkins, Norland Middle School

Central – Juan Gabriel Martin, Citrus Grove K-8 Center

South – Denzel Williams, Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts

Adult/Technical Colleges and Educational Opportunity and Access – Victor Ramos, South Dade Technical College