PALMETTO -- Rebekah Lester loves her students, but the ones she remembers most are the children who are "hard to reach," yet find a connection through music.
One such student, now a senior at Palmetto High School, was an eighth-grader when Lester was teaching music in middle school. The student had several in-school suspensions and was having trouble with her education.
"I remember the second semester of school, I said to her, 'OK, what do you really, really like to do?' Just trying to make that connection with the student," Lester said. "And she said, 'Well, Miss, I like to dance.' And I said, 'OK, if you stay in school, and you work really, really hard, I'll help you get the application and apply for the dance team at the local high school in Manatee County.'"
Lester spoke to her about the spring tryouts and helped her with the information, but since it was at the end of the school year she didn't know if the student had made it. Then, at a football game last year, she saw the student in dance uniform.
"She came up to me saying, 'Miss! Miss! Miss! I made it, I made the dance team!'" Lester recalled with a smile. "And she was so proud that she had made the dance team, but I was just so proud that she had stayed in school."
Lester was awarded the Governor's Shine Award for her teaching, and will be honored with three other teachers during Gov. Rick Scott's Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning. A handful of teachers are recognized every year from a pool of 180,000 teachers statewide, selected for their "superior ability to teach and communicate knowledge of the subject taught, professional development, philosophy of teaching, and outstanding school and community service," according to the governor's office.
But the most important qualification is the teacher's ability to inspire a love of learning.
Lester has been a classroom and music teacher for 13 years, but says she has really enjoyed her past three years as a music teacher at James Tillman Elementary School, where she still inserts math, Spanish and reading lessons into the music and dancing.
"I slip it in there and it tricks them," Lester said with a laugh.
Ruby Zickafoose, assistant principal of Tillman, said Lester really cares about reaching students, and that it's evident both in her teaching and in her role as head of after-school enrichment programs. She also brought in about $8,000 to the school last year through grant writing and recruitment from the school district.
"She uses music as a funnel to make kids love coming to school," Zickafoose said. "She encourages them in the classroom, and she's always willing to talk up their future, and anchors them in what they want to do."
Lester said she was honored and humbled when she heard she had won the award, especially since she genuinely loves teaching.
"I cried for like an hour. My kids were like, 'Mom!'" Lester said. "There are so many awesome teachers in our district."
A group of second-graders in her classroom Monday morning danced and sung songs in English and Spanish, and used xylophones and maracas. Most of the students said Lester's is their favorite class.
"She's really nice and she lets us do a lot of stuff in her room," said 7-year-old Emmanuel Barboza. "Sometimes we get to play with instruments, like her keyboards. She has a lot of stuff, like tablets, and those are my favorites."
Lester said she tries to keep her lessons fun while also using music to reach students who struggle in traditional education environments.
She said that can be particularly important in schools like Tillman, where about 67 percent of students are English-language learners and about 97 percent are Title I.
"I think the arts help to reach all students, but those tough kids, sometimes they need that special interest to get through to them," Lester said.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby