A social studies teacher at Jefferson High School, a classroom aide at the Willis Peters Exceptional Center and a dropout prevention specialist at Shields Middle School took top honors Thursday at the Hillsborough County Excellence in Education awards.
Patrick Boyko, 34, who majored in history and not education in college, won the coveted title of Teacher of the Year.
"I think it's safe to release this information now — I snuck into Interview Day," he told the audience at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which included a jubilant contingent from Jefferson, where he teaches world history, wars of the 20th century and Holocaust studies.
The Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year, Julia Sarmiento of Shields, told the crowd, "I can't wait to go and tell all my students that I did it for them."
Instructional Support Employee of the Year, special education aide Amy Peters, said she feels lucky to go to work every day.
"I learn so much from the kids," she said. "Their love is just so unconditional."
More than 700 educators were chosen to represent their schools in the three competitions.
Committees consisting of district officials and community leaders selected 15 finalists and later conducted interviews to arrive at the final three.
Each was introduced by a student, and in the case of all three winners, they spoke of how their teachers helped them believe in themselves.
Boyko's student Rebeca Rodriguez, 18, who hopes to be a U.S. senator, described the self-doubts that consumed her when her team suffered a setback in an empire-building exercise in wars of the 20th century.
"That day I felt defeated," she said. "That day I let down the other four members of my empire. That day I began to question myself."
But Boyko assured her that "the fact that I had worked as hard as I did and the fact that I cared about the other members of my empire as much as I did, I had actually proven that I was capable of leading."
Through his lessons, she said, "he brought history to life for us. He allowed each of us a voice and each of us to tell our stories. We knew we had a teacher who cared."
Sarmiento was introduced by Leury Alcantara, now a student at Hillsborough Community College, who said he considers her more than a teacher. "I consider her a second mother," he said.
For Peters, praise came from 18-year-old Javontae Bryant, who said Peters "makes every day special" and taught him how to calm down and think before he acts.
After the winners were announced, Boyko thanked his parents, his teachers and his girlfriend for their support.
Then he urged the roomful of teachers to try not to dwell on the evaluations, observations and overall bureaucracy of the job.
"Remember when you were a child," he said. "Remember feeling like you were invisible. Remember the trivial things that ruled your adolescent life. Who made you feel safe? Our children need that safety just as much as we did."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.