Alumni Award Winner Adam Bernstein on Channeling Obstacles and Impacting Students

Adam Bernstein
July 31, 2019

This award is a tremendous honor and I want to begin by thanking the teachers I had in South Africa, where I grew up and in Florida, where I found my way to the Academy of Information Technology at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School.

I wouldn’t be here had you not been there. Thank you!

There are so many others who have helped me find the career that I am passionate about — Dr. Lupe Diaz, Executive Director for CTE, Sonia Samaroo, NAF Academy of Information Technology District Director. By the way, if Sonia got $1 for each time I called she would be the richest person alive. I would also like to say thank you to Bev Cameron, who was my lead teacher when I was a student. I am now very lucky to have Bev as not only a mentor but a friend. And to Ann Fields, who nominated me for this honor. I am so grateful to you, Ann, and everyone at CTE for guiding and inspiring me as a teacher. 

I love my work. I get to be in a classroom with kids who are excited about learning and who love to share what they know with me — including hip phrases that they have to translate for me. 

Teaching allows me to continually learn about technology and apply what I learn. From my classroom, I get an extremely wide perspective of the world — because of the teachers, students, families, and advisors who shape and are shaped by our Academy.

For me, the road here has not been without its bumps. 

When I was 10 years old, I was involved in a car accident.  My neck was broken — C1 and C2, similar to what happened to Christopher Reeves. I was put in a halo brace and was out of school for several months. It was challenging for me and for my Mom. Recovery was slow, the boredom that comes with immobility was intense. Many days I just lay in bed in a hot room with no air conditioning listening to a TV that I couldn’t really see.

But I got better.

When I was able to go back to school, the principal insisted that I wear the school uniform even though the shirt didn’t fit over my halo brace.  I still couldn’t turn my head, but I put up a fight and ended up winning that battle, which looked like a 10-year-old kid in a body brace with pants, no shirt, and a huge scar down my back. 

But I had always been a shy kid, and that victory was important in a lot of ways.

My hero, Nelson Mandela, said education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.  In South Africa, I saw firsthand how many children struggle to have that. When I was a middle schooler in Cape Town, our community service group got a chance to volunteer at a very poor school in an incredibly poor community. There was no actual school building. The classrooms were huge containers from a cargo ship. Among many other things, the kids there needed food, both breakfast and lunch.

So we raised money for kitchen equipment, which got them fed, which got the attention of the Province Minister for the Western Cape, which eventually got students regular meals. 

Our determined little group 7th, 8th, and 9th graders turned that ship around. 

Education and students armed with a purpose can change the world.

Helping those students changed us. It was a lesson that I learned as a boy that I work to convey as a teacher.

Our move to Florida, when I was in 9th grade, opened a door to the world I live and work in today. I attended a brand new school called Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High. And because the school was new, I was part of the very first group of students to complete all four years of the Academy of Information Technology where I earned certifications in Adobe Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Flash.

But high school was not without its challenges.

I worked very hard to improve my reading skills, upped my score, joined Future Business Leaders of America and got a summer internship.  The Academy experience gave me a chance to shine. High school made me believe I could go to college even though I didn’t have enough money and I was a terrible test taker.

And I did go.

After my first year at Florida International University, I got a NAF scholarship which gave me not just funds, but confidence. At FIU, the skills I had learned at the Academy helped me land a job producing promotional materials for visiting speakers. There I was, collaborating with the likes of Soledad O’Brien, W. Kamau Bell, Mayim Bialik from the Big Bang Theory, Laverne Cox, and others. My academy experience gave me the skills to do that and the confidence.

I never thought I would get a job as a teacher, but I got the opportunity to be the Academy Lead Teacher in the same program that I had once been a student in — Academy of Information Technology.

I would like to say thank you to our Principal, Randy Milliken, who believed I could be a teacher even before I did. And to Dr. Sacha Challenger, our Vice Principal. She has supported my vision for our academy and helped develop our academy into what it is today.

It is a gift to be able to work in a creative environment and bring the world of technology to my students in some interesting ways.

For example, when I found out Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook went to North Miami Beach, I decided to invite her to come speak. I spent hours finding her real email, but when I asked, she accepted and she came.

It never hurts to ask for something big when the impact on others can be so powerful. Whether it’s a famous visitor or food for a poor school.

Not long after I started teaching, I came to see that the sum of my experiences — including my setbacks and rough spots, are a plus. I understand that kid, the one who is smart but struggles with reading, who has spotty attendance and is honest when he says no one ever pushed him to graduate. As teachers, we always work to have a positive impact on our students. But when that kid comes back in a Marine uniform and says thank you — this a gift that only a teacher will get and it is life-changing.

When I first became a teacher, I thought I would eventually leave the profession for a career in business. What I didn’t fully appreciate was the impact the students would have on me. I want to thank my students for teaching and pushing me. That’s why I have decided to continue teaching. 

I would like to thank NAF, for this award. But most importantly, thank you for creating a school that — when I needed it most — really fit me, scars and all. 

I am part of a legion of students and teachers whose lives have been changed by what our academies encouraged us to become, and we are ready and willing to embrace what’s next.

Thank you.