LAND O'LAKES — Land O'Lakes High principal Ric Mellin and a group of adults interrupted agriculture teacher Kelly Rodgers' class Tuesday morning, claiming it was time for a faculty evaluation.
Rodgers quickly learned, however, that this was a little white lie that put some green in her pocket. She was chosen as Teacher of the Month for Wesley Chapel Toyota and Clear Channel Communications' "I Love My Teacher" contest.
Rodgers' brief look of confusion quickly turned to a smile and moments of emotion. At times she even covered her mouth in surprise as she heard the written comments of students who nominated her through US 103.5 Tampa Bay's Best Country station's website.
"The average teacher spends their weekends sleeping late and getting away from the stress of teaching. But Ms. Rodgers spends every Saturday morning at school, building barns, treating livestock, and handling some crazy teenagers," wrote student Shelby Howell. "… She is the veterinarian for our animals, our referee when we're fighting, our personal chauffeur, a FABULOUS Agriculture teacher, and a great friend! We never can thank her enough for all she does for us, but I think 500 dollars would really help."
Students and Mellin looked on as Eric Kinney, an account executive with Clear Channel, presented the second-year teacher with the award, nomination papers and an American Express gift card for $500.
Rodgers' students were beaming as much as she was.
"Thank you so much," she said quietly before she and the entire class were swept outside for photographs with the US 103.5 promotions truck.
At a time when school teachers have had to deal with frozen wages, budget cuts and dipping into their own pockets for some classroom supplies, all the while taking furlough days, the award brought a morale boost to the school.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for her to receive the recognition. I think it's more special the recognition comes from the students," Mellin said. "It's a proud day for Land O'Lakes High School and a proud day for the district."
Those around her said Rodgers deserved this award, funded by Wesley Chapel Toyota, which has been active with the Pasco Education Foundation, and organized by Clear Channel Communications.
Since she started teaching last year, Rodgers has taken the school's agriculture program from about 85 students to about 135.
"I have a feeling we might get to the point where we have a waiting list," Mellin said.
She has bridged the agriculture program with the school's Culinary Arts Academy so that students are cooking up what her students have grown. And with a big fundraising push, a new pig barn was built on school grounds and is now filled with the hoofed animals. Not to mention, Rodgers commutes an hour from Citrus County just to work at the school.
"She's done a lot," one of her nominators, senior Avalon McMann, 17, said Tuesday. "She brought the FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter back from being run into the dirt."
"She's just an awesome teacher," added Diamond Fields, 18, and also a senior. "She inspires us in everything you do."
Rodgers said teaching goes beyond the typical classroom lessons.
"I believe hands-on learning helps kids much more than sitting down and learning in front of a book," Rodgers said. "The reason I chose agriculture is you get a feeling for where your food comes from before it hits the table… Milk doesn't come from Publix."
Rodgers said she owes her successes to a supportive administration and great students for whom she is thankful. Outside near the campus barn, she still appeared in shock.
"Five hundred is a pretty good amount of money to be surprised with," she aid. "It would be good for Christmas shopping."