Temple Terrace teacher recognized in Gov. Rick Scott's speech
Middle school teachers don’t often get 15 minutes of fame.
But Elizabeth Heli got hers on Tuesday, when Gov. Rick Scott named her in the annual State of the State Address.
Scott mentioned Heli, an engineering teacher at Greco Middle in Temple Terrace, as he made his pitch to award $2,500 pay raises to educators across the state. The across-the-board increases are one of Scott’s top budget priorities this year.
The idea has received a lukewarm reception from Republican lawmakers, many of whom would rather see the dollars distributed to through a performance-pay system, like the one about to kick in statewide next year.
Teachers have mixed feelings, too. Some consider the $2,500 increase too little, too late – and say the move is nothing more than a publicity stunt meant to improve Scott’s dismal approval rating.
Heli, 32, said she would welcome the extra cash if it were to be approved by the Legislature.
“You never turn down $2,500,” she said, musing that she might use the money for a down payment on a new car, or to buy more supplies for her classroom. “You don’t go into teaching for the money. But anything would be helpful.”
In many ways, Heli represents Scott’s idea of a perfect teacher. She left her career as an electrical engineer seven years ago, deciding instead to teach engineering to pre-teens. Outside of the classroom, she runs extracurricular programs to engage girls in subject areas like robotics.
Scott has traveled the state touting the importance of the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum known as STEM. Last month, he honored Heli with the Governor’s Shine Award for excellence in education at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Heli had no clue she would be mentioned in the State of the State speech until Scott's office called last week. She took Tuesday off from work, leaving her students to build balsa-wood bridges and play with robots in her absence.
Her shout-out lasted only a moment. But when the governor asked for a round of applause to acknowledge her work, Heli received a standing ovation.
“It’s an honor,” she said, still a little starstruck after the speech had wrapped up. “There are so many great teachers in the state of Florida. Being picked felt fantastic.”
Heli said it was too soon to say if the pay raises would win over teachers, especially in light earlier cuts to education spending and the state's controversial performance-pay legislation.
Florida Education Association President Andy Ford noted that teacher pay in Florida would still be thousands below the national average. "That’s not competitive pay for a state that seeks to be a leader in economic development,” he wrote in a statement.
'"I'm happy to see a focus of education,” she said.
Heli voted for Scott in 2010, and said she would consider supporting the governor in a potential bid for reelection.