TAMPA — At 31, Cassandra Mattison has served as English department head, writing resource teacher and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Spoto High School.
She fills in when teachers are on leave. She sponsors the student government. She organizes Saturday writing sessions. She has led food drives, seat belt campaigns and Relay for Life.
She says students at the Riverview school call her "that crazy lady." And on Thursday evening her brand of insanity won her the title of Teacher of the Year for Hillsborough County.
"This is what I was meant to do," Mattison said after the ceremony, describing tutoring stints that began in her teenage years. During her parents' divorce, she found stability in the classroom.
"School was my safe place," she said.
Indeed, in accepting the award, she thanked the teachers at every school she has attended in Hillsborough County, starting with Shaw Elementary and ending with King High School.
"I would not be standing where I am today if it were not for teachers like you," she told the audience of more than 2,000 educators.
It was an evening of student testimonials, anecdotes and musical entertainment from Gaither High School.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the crowd, "We get to see the people who make miracles happen every day in the Hillsborough County schools."
Socorrito Claudio, who teaches language arts and social studies to special-needs students and English language learners at Wimauma Elementary School and described herself as "one of those at-risk kids," was named the Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year.
Secretary Maryann Bordonaro of Essrig Elementary School took top honors as instructional support employee. Bordonaro launched the Carrollwood school's Relay for Life and stood in for parents who could not attend conference night so the children could celebrate their progress, according to principal Teresa Campbell.
Mattison's award was announced last, and she was calm and purposeful as she urged her colleagues: "Look around this room. People like you are the ones who make these things happen."
Spoto principal Phillip Carr, who was an assistant principal at King when Mattison was a student there, said, "I'm overjoyed for her."
Eyeing a voluminous list of her accomplishments at Spoto, he said, "She has done it all."
Mattison described in detail her efforts to improve students' writing at Spoto. Fellow teachers were enlisted to cold-call students and invite them to Saturday classes in preparation for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
The school enjoyed spectacular FCAT results, and Mattison was asked to run another Saturday program the following year.
In one 10th grade class, the teacher was on leave. "Those students had discipline issues, sporadic attendance, and run-ins with the law," she wrote.
Mattison taught them during her conference period. "When final scores were released, I learned every student in that class passed the test."
News of the three winners, always a carefully guarded secret, was revealed early Thursday when the Tampa Bay Times inadvertently distributed a special section with the winners a day early.
"We love scoops," Tampa publisher Joe DeLuca said. "We did not love this one."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.