LAND O'LAKES — If one thing connects the three finalists for Pasco County teacher of the year, it's the thrill in reaching individual students and meeting their needs, even after all their years in public education.
Wynne Black came out of retirement after years as an administrator to open Anclote High's social studies department. He says he continues to learn on the job, which he began 38 years ago, and welcomes new ideas of how to interest teens in learning.
"I am still interning after all these years," Black said.
Sean Gaudet joined Wesley Chapel High's staff in 1999 as a brand-new drama teacher filled with optimism over how to succeed at something he hadn't done before. Today, he's got a successful program with more than 200 students who annually win top honors at district competitions.
He says he tries to tailor his lessons to each student's abilities, as a one-size-fits-all approach simply cannot work.
"They're all different, every single one of them," Gaudet said. "It's up to me, if I am doing my job right, to figure out what works for every one of them."
Robin Walters became interested in teaching while volunteering in her son's classroom and noticing how the teacher excited students and made a difference in their lives. At Pasco High, she's focused her career on helping students who struggle with reading to make it through to graduation.
"I have not only grown as a person, but the rewards of helping young people attain their goals are beyond words," said Walters, who also was honored last year as one of Florida's top reading teachers.
Each year, educators at each of Pasco's schools nominate colleagues whom they see as the best representatives of their profession. They look for teachers who connect with students, use innovative methods and lead by example. A panel chooses the finalists after watching the candidates teach and reading essays that each writes.
The winner moves on to compete for Florida teacher of the year honors.
Gaudet said becoming one of the finalists offers some validation.
"It's really nice," he said. "You kind of work in your own room, your own four-walled kingdom, and you're never really sure if other people notice."
When they do, Walters said, the recognition can be humbling.
"I think I'm just a representative of all the great teachers," she said.
Black, 61, said he considers his greatest achievement to be reaching at-risk students.
"I was not always the most dedicated student," he wrote in an application to the foundation. "That is why my greatest achievements center on the alternative student, the ones who are at risk and are not connected to school and maybe even life itself.
"Teaching is a moveable feast. I have taken this feast everywhere."
That means learning from experiences, taking on new challenges and creating a dynamic learning environment. He likes to use research-proven models to improve his classroom, and said he looks to break the mold in order to best help students.
Black has coached several sports in his career. He is active in his church and also volunteers at a local karate dojo.
Gaudet, 40, came to teaching after nine years as a team leader for Whole Foods. He said he changed careers because he wanted to make a difference in others' lives, and not just make money.
"I'm 40 years old and I'm still idealistic," he said. "I still believe that people can make this a better world to live in."
He said he aims to make his classes fun, even for those students who are taking the electives without any real passion. He works to pass along lessons in personal accountability, responsibility, ethics and other life skills, making the courses valuable regardless of whether the teens are pursuing drama for the long term.
"I treat every student as though they want to succeed," Gaudet said. "When the students don't succeed, tomorrow is another day."
Gaudet is a member of United School Employees of Pasco, the International Thespian Society and the Educational Theatre Association. He created the Wesley Chapel Independent Film Festival.
Walters, 54, said she loves teaching high school.
"These students, sometimes they are so needy," she said. "And when you can help them get one step closer to that diploma, that is what brings me the greatest joy."
Reading is a critical skill that students must master to get out of high school, she noted. So when the juniors and seniors who come to her finally buckle down and realize the importance of her class, Walters can sense they've clicked.
She works with small groups, so she can identify the students' needs and also their interests, and pair the two to get the teens reading.
Ever since volunteering in that second-grade classroom, she said, "I knew this is what I wanted to do. I have never regretted it."
Walters is a member of the United School Employees of Pasco, Beta Sigma Phi, the Pasco Reading Association and the Florida Reading Association. She has served as a mentor to new teachers, as a team leader, reading coach and Lead Literacy member.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.