WESLEY CHAPEL — Wiregrass Ranch High English teacher Paula Berry stood at the door of her portable classroom, shaking the hand of each student who entered for the hour.
Berry does this every day, every class period, to make sure she gives her students the personal touch, so they know she cares. She even taught some how to grip firmly and shake — such gestures matter in the world outside of high school, she explained.
The bell rang, and Berry launched into her daily "did you know?" On this day, she told the class that a recent study showed just 26 percent of women and 17 percent of men wash their hands after using the restroom.
"It's flu season, people," she intoned. "Wash your hands."
The class discussed current events and an Edgar Allan Poe-themed Winnie the Pooh cartoon, sang Happy Birthday to a classmate and reviewed some good and bad news (the bad news first, of course) before jumping into a detailed lesson about Upton Sinclair's The Jungle that incorporated literature, grammar, history and writing. Students will learn something in her class, Berry said, no matter how small.
That's a message that students appreciate. So, too, did the selection committee for Pasco County's 2013 Teacher of the Year.
Berry received the award Saturday evening.
She said she was honored just to be considered. The other finalists were Sabrina Schmitz at Mitchell High and Darcy Cleek at Long Middle School.
"It really is the most humbling experience I have ever had," said Berry, 32, a teacher in the district since 2008. "To have the support of colleagues and students, to be in the same league as the other teachers, it really is phenomenal."
Juniors in her Advanced Placement English Language course had nothing but praise for their teacher, who they considered both fun and challenging.
"I think she's so good because she's very straightforward. She doesn't sugarcoat anything," junior Amanda-Lynn Hill said. "She'll give you honest feedback so you know what to fix. She's just really good."
Hill liked Berry so much that she's in a second course with the teacher.
Junior Mrudula Peddinti called Berry "fantastic."
"She's very relatable. She's not pressuring as a teacher," Peddinti said. "I feel like I really understand the things I learn in this class, even though it's really high level."
Wiregrass Ranch principal Ray Bonti had no question that Berry deserved top teacher honors. He praised her for her great rapport with students, her welcoming classroom filled with Star Wars memorabilia alongside inspirational posters and postcards from around the world, and her rigorous but engaging lessons.
Bonti also mentioned how Berry incorporates technology into her classroom, as well as helping the entire faculty in analyzing student performance data.
"If you put a Ms. Berry in every classroom in this country, this country would be the No. 1 education country in the world," Bonti said.
Watching her in class, visitors get a sense of how dedicated Berry is to her profession.
She asks questions that delve into nuances, giving students room to explore ideas but not letting them off the hook with easy answers. She challenges their assumptions, using information from articles and texts that aren't the main assignment but are related and add context.
Berry keeps the class moving from bell to bell, finding time for an occasional joke or a personal aside to a student but not losing track of the main lesson at hand.
"She doesn't give us busy work," junior Antonella Berrios said. "All the work she assigns us has a purpose. I think we learn something new every day."
Knowing that she reaches her students in this way keeps Berry coming back, despite the many changes and requirements thrown at teachers with increasing regularity.
"I keep doing it because of the kids. They're amazing. Like this one, and this one, and this one," she said, shaking hands with another class of students arriving for the next period. "I was born to teach. It's my purpose."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.