LAND O'LAKES — If there's one thing that defines all three finalists for Pasco County teacher of the year, it's their lack of preoccupation with the award.
"I'm so busy with these kids that this sort of thing is really not in my realm," said John Long Middle School science teacher Kathryn Bylsma, speaking amid a class of sixth-graders who were constructing solar system models.
Pine View Middle language arts teacher Stephanie Walls said she didn't even consider herself an excellent teacher.
"I just am encouraged for the students," she said during her planning period. "They make me better."
Land O'Lakes High English teacher I. David Berger confided that he didn't even believe the caller who informed him that he was in the running for the honor.
"It's a little unnerving," Berger said after giving some advice to one of his Advanced Placement students. "I'm not typically a spotlight individual. I enjoy being recognized because I know people are paying attention. But I don't seek it out."
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 county winner goes on to compete for Florida teacher of the year.
Berger, 41, has taught in Pasco schools since 2002. A native New Yorker, he first thought about becoming an attorney specializing in family law, but decided he wanted to help more children by teaching.
Over the years, he has taught fifth grade through high school seniors. And though he focuses on content — Wednesday afternoon found him teaching Yeats to an Advanced Placement literature class — he also strives to go beyond to help students in other ways.
For instance, each year he has seniors apply to "Berger University" so he can help them with college essays and the application process.
"My question to myself is, if I don't do it with them, I don't know who will," Berger explained.
Bylsma, 49, has taught in Pasco since 1993. Over time, she has become respected in science education to the point where she recently served on the committee that rewrote the state's science standards.
Chair of Long Middle's science department, Bylsma teaches gifted students. As someone who moved frequently as a child, she understands that students have specific needs and says education is the great equalizer.
"You do what you need to do for kids," she said, adding that she has trouble with the idea of honoring the teachers "because you're not recognizing the students."
Walls, 42, became a Pasco teacher in 2002 as a second career, after working as a business analyst. She had been on leave while caring for her newborn son when, as a professed Type A, Walls decided she needed something new to do.
She said she tries to bring positive energy to the classroom, and to teach students the way she would like to be taught. She makes herself available to students during lunch, and also mentors other teachers.
Outside the school, Walls and her family have raised thousands of dollars for research into the disease that causes people to be allergic to all foods, an illness her youngest son has. She said teaching allows her to help all students, whatever their situation, realize they can make it in this world.
"I absolutely love teaching," she said. "I thrive on it."
The foundation will announce the county teacher of the year on Jan. 24.
The foundation also has named finalists for three other awards. They are:
• Administrator of the Year -— Steve Knobl, principal, Gulf High School; Ken Miesner, principal, Richey Elementary School; Terry Rhum, director, employee relations
• School-Related Employee of the Year — Kelly Frasier, clinic assistant, Wesley Chapel Elementary School; Donna Lyons, secretary, Mary Giella Elementary School; Tracy Sanderson, secretary, Lacoochee Elementary School
• Non-instructional Non-bargaining Employee of the Year — Beverly Lopata, food and nutrition training manager; Leroy Christopher, plant manager, Stewart Middle School; DeEtte Parrish, bookkeeping resource assistant; Theresa Schuldt, secretary, maintenance department.
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.