Thousands of Lithia-area residents touch the lives of children every day, but one has been singled out above the rest. Lois Horn-Diaz, a teacher of the gifted at R. Bruce Wagner Elementary, was named Polk County Teacher of the Year for 2017 and she is using that honor to influence the education of more students.
A 20-year Lithia resident, Horn-Diaz took an interesting road to classroom teaching, spending time as the Education Representative for Sea World of Florida, hosting a children’s television program called “This is Me’ for WFTV-Channel 9 in Orlando and working as a school psychologist in Polk County.
“My position as a school psychologist allowed me freedom to focus on my areas of interest; using music, drama and video production as a vehicle to share positive mental health messages with children throughout the county,” said Horn-Diaz, who also runs Blueberry Cottage Farms offering U-Pick, with her husband Jose.
After attaining a degree in Gifted Education, which compliments her Masters and Specialist degrees in School Psychology, Horn-Diaz decided to become a classroom teacher seven years ago at the school where she previously worked as a psychologist.
“I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to create my own curriculum for my gifted program,” she said. “Deciding to use the imagery of a hot air balloon, I envisioned my classroom as a vehicle from which my students would be traveling to many destinations that would allow them to explore the past and present.”
Her time as Teacher of the Year was exciting for Horn-Diaz, who explained that in addition to being presented with a Honda Fit car from Regal Honda, a gold ring from Herff-Jones and prize money from Mid-Florida Credit Union, she also received a weekend resort vacation from The Lakeland Ledger, tickets to Universal Studios and other attractions and annual passes to Walt Disney World for her family.
“The whole experience has been overwhelming for me,” she said. “Although I am not someone who has ever shied away from the limelight, being honored for just doing what I have always done seemed surreal.”
She also met the Florida Governor and First Lady at the Teacher of the Year Gala and a reception at the Governor’s Mansion, and was awarded the Florida Association for Gifted Children State Award for Creative Teaching Excellence and the Governor’s Shine Award at a meeting of the Florida Cabinet.
Valencia College, where she took and taught some classes, named her a Distinguished Alumni and she shared the stage with a former President of Walt Disney World, the former mayor of Orlando, a former State Representative and a member of ‘N Sync, at the schools 50 year anniversary celebration.
But most important to Horn-Diaz is that she is able to share her love for and beliefs about education with others. She feels more people need to know about the importance of creativity and teacher autonomy and stresses the need for differentiated teaching in schools.
“I am determined to use the platform that these honors are now providing me to speak up in support of what I believe to be the best practices in education,” she said.
For more information on the Polk County Teacher of the Year program, visit www.polk-fl.net.