Cleveland Elementary fourth-graders never know what to expect from teacher Megan Allen. Some days, she comes to class dressed like a pirate. Others, she sings and dances to rearranged Jackson 5 classics.
But at a ceremony Monday night organized by the Hillsborough Education Foundation, Allen found herself on the receiving end of a surprise. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced she was the county's Teacher of the Year.
"I'm totally stunned and speechless," Allen told a crowd of 1,400 at the Tampa Convention Center. "I have no idea what to say."
Eight finalists, selected from an initial field of 224 nominees, were in the running for teaching's top honor.
Allen, 30, was selected for her unorthodox teaching style and the numerous community service initiatives she has spearheaded.
In introducing her former teacher, Burney Elementary fifth-grader Zuseth Herevia spoke of those qualities.
"I can remember all her silly songs, jokes that made us laugh," said Herevia, 10, who attends Burney Elementary in Plant City. "These methods helped us get the job done."
Allen graduated from Clemson University in 2000 on her way to a master's degree in education from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in 2003. She has taught for five years, most of them at Burney.
Now in her first year at Cleveland, Allen wears costumes to engage students in lessons on writing; organizes step teams to build their confidence; and comes up with corny songs to liven up Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test review sessions.
Her latest, If You Elaborate, We're Going to Put a Six on It, parodies Beyonce's current single ladies anthem, Put a Ring on It. Earlier Monday, students nicknamed her "the master of embarrassment" for coming up with the spoof, she said.
"They were threatening to embarrass me back," she said moments before she learned she'd won.
At Burney Elementary, she helped students create a garden in memory of a classmate who died of leukemia. With Allen's help, they also donated 200 books to All Children's Hospital in the student's name.
She's also established a "green team" to promote recycling and the School SOUL (Serving Others through Understanding Leadership) group to encourage student-driven service projects.
"I feel like my most effective way to help the community is by helping enable the students to take responsibility in doing it," she said in her nomination packet. "By teaching them to make a difference, I feel like I make a greater difference."
As Teacher of the Year, Allen gets a bevy of prizes: $1,000 cash, college scholarships from the University of South Florida and Nova Southeastern University, a classroom grant, a limo ride to school, a four-day, three-night vacation in the Bahamas, a ring, a one-year lease on a Lexus, a Tampa Bay Rays jersey and autographed ball, and tickets to museums, sports games and amusement parks.
She'll also get to compete for state Teacher of the Year.
"It's for the kids, every day, every way," she said of her award. "It's for these guys."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.