Five compete to be Hillsborough County’s best teacher

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Sonya Kelly can speak to an audience of 500 8-year-olds, no problem.

But a group of his peers, in formal dress at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts?

“It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest,” said Kelly, 34, after learning recently that she was a finalist for Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year.

The annual awards ceremony resumes after one year in virtual format due to the pandemic.

On January 20, the finalists will join their colleagues and families in downtown Tampa for a themed evening, followed by announcements for Diversity Educator Ida S. Baker of the Year, Educational Support Employee at the year and finally the teacher of the year.

A committee chooses from five finalists in the teacher category: Kelly, who teaches third grade at Tampa Palms Elementary; Trista Willard of Mendenhall Elementary, also a third grade teacher; Melissa Bondoc, who teaches second grade at Summerfield Elementary; Laura Widerberg, professor of biology at Armwood High; and Jennifer Price, a fifth grade teacher at Lanier Elementary School.

Willard, 33, “is racking his brains” to prepare for the interview, she said. “I know it’s going to be about data and student success. “

She believes that the high standards she sets are her strongest attribute. “I have the highest expectations for every student and every student,” she said. “I will not let any student fail.”

For Kelly, in Tampa Palms, it’s more about character.

“I pride myself on being kind and caring,” she said. “I think the whole world would be a better place if everyone cared about each other’s feelings, and I put that into everything I do.” She makes a point of teaching her students “to take a step back and be attentive to what is best for others”.

The first part of the evening will feature the Diversity Award finalists: Kristine Kelly, Resource Teacher at Potter Elementary; Bernadette London, who teaches fifth grade at Lomax; Benigno Lopez, a successful coach at Shields Middle; Karian Rivera, first grade teacher at Reddick Elementary School; and Liisa DiTarando, who teaches second grade at McKitrick Elementary.

The finalists for the Support Staff Award are: Faith Smith, Parent Liaison Assistant at Temple Terrace Elementary; Steve Lunin, the cafeteria manager at Sickles High; and Anita Garcia, the data processor at Mitchell Elementary.

Winners can continue to declare the competition, and the Tampa Bay area has had a good run in this department.

Sarah Painter, of Eisenhower Elementary School in Pinellas County, is Florida’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. Two years earlier, that honor had gone to Dakeyan “Dre” Graham of King High School in Hillsborough County. Graham now works in the school choices office for the Florida Department of Education.

Pinellas will host his Teacher of the Year event on January 26 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, choosing a winner from 10 finalists. Pasco’s best teacher was announced in November. This is Ryan Bintz, drama teacher at Longleaf Elementary School in New Port Richey.


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