The interviewers had a simple request. Write a greeting note, they said. Make it out to your prospective students.
But after being clammy-handed and nerve-wracked all morning, Cheryl Bishop, 29, a second-grade teacher at now-defunct North Ward Elementary in Clearwater, had to fess up.
"Will my handwriting count?" she said.
"Because I'm shaking."
Bishop wasn't alone. About 350 other dry-mouthed, sweaty-palmed Pinellas teachers lobbied for new gigs at a job fair on Friday, almost all of them displaced by this year's historic round of school closings.
Most of them toughed out multiple interviews. All kept their fingers crossed.
But some couldn't keep the cork on raw emotions.
"We're no different from our students. We're leaving our friends," said Kelee Nesmith, 41, a first-grade teacher who has spent 14 years at Rio Vista Elementary in St. Petersburg.
Sitting with other Rio Vista teachers, Nesmith wiped her eyes.
"We all know why it's happening," she said. "But it doesn't make it any easier."
Declining state revenue and shrinking enrollment forced Pinellas to shutter six elementary schools this year and consolidate four middle schools into two.
The district put on the job fair — at Pinellas Park High and Morgan Fitzgerald Middle — to give the teachers at those schools first dibs on 450 slots that have opened elsewhere due to retirements and out-of-district transfers.
In a process akin to speed dating, each teacher met with a series of interview teams from different schools for 20 minutes at a time, then ranked his or her preferences. The interview teams did likewise.
The district will begin looking for matches on Monday, and expects to begin notifying teachers of their new placements by the middle of next week.
Every teacher invited to the fair is guaranteed a job. But it won't be clear for weeks how many get positions that jibe perfectly with their expertise.
"Our goal is to place them in that perfect match," said Harriet Konstantinidis, who oversees the hiring of middle and high school teachers in Pinellas. But "it takes a little bit of juggling sometimes."
On Friday, many teachers had broader worries.
When it gels, a school's teaching corps is like a family, many teachers said. Now families are being ripped apart, with members seeking adoption in new families elsewhere.
"We know each other's children. We know each other's spouses," said April McKinley, 37, a third-grade teacher at North Ward.
"We keep other's pets," said fellow North Ward teacher Terri McLemore, 54, finishing McKinley's sentence.
Many teachers said they were excited by the challenges ahead. But many felt fear and anxiety, too. At least one broke down in an interview.
"She said she missed her kids," said Godfrey Watson, the assistant principal at Sawgrass Lake Elementary, who was interviewing the woman for one of 10 openings.
Some teachers felt resentment, too.
A few said they were upset they had to compete for jobs with less-experienced teachers. Others were just flummoxed that they had to interview for the first time in 10 or 15 years.
"It's a little frustrating," said Rick Voskuil, 57, who was recruited from Missouri two years ago to teach biology at Madeira Beach Middle. "I came here to teach on the water."
Voskuil, whose passion is marine science, said he's not sure which other schools would be a good fit. But he was game Friday, sporting a black-and-white "got science?" T-shirt beneath a bone-colored suit.
"They're doing their very best to keep us up," he said of the interview teams. "I feel bolstered."
Bishop, the North Ward teacher with the shaky handwriting, ended the day on a high note. Members of one interview team sought her out and told her, "We want to put you No. 1. How do you feel about that?"
Bishop told them, "I really liked you, too."
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.