Joanne Wright traveled the world before finding her place in a Pinellas County classroom.
Wright, 37, grew up in South Africa and met her husband, Ben Wright, a Virginian, on a visit to Florida. The pair spent four years traveling before settling down. In the summer, they took jobs on sailboats going to and from Europe. In the winter, they worked at a ski resort in Vermont.
But it was in teaching that Wright found her passion. And on Monday, the reading teacher at Safety Harbor Middle School was honored as Pinellas County's Outstanding Educator for 2013.
"I am humbled. Wow. I am humbled. Wow," she said, moments after the announcement during the annual "Evening of Excellence" at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The event, presented by the Pinellas Education Foundation, drew more than 1,000 people.
Wright was praised for her infectious energy. In a recommendation letter, parents Adam and Christina Willis said they believed she could "make a special connection with anyone that she came across."
Sixth-grader Liam Walsh said Wright's accent made "even the most unremarkable lesson sound even more interesting."
She beat out more than 75 nominees for the honor, and now will compete for Florida's Teacher of the Year. She also snagged the fan favorite award, which was based on online votes by students, parents and the community.
Wright studied drama, English and the Zulu language, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Natal, now called the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa.
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Other finalists for outstanding educator included Jennifer Anderson, a language arts and reading teacher at East Lake High; Becky Bride, a math teacher and math department chair at Palm Harbor University High; Krista Kelleher, who teaches students with autism at Sawgrass Lake Elementary in St. Petersburg; Jennifer Klimis, a teacher in the gifted program at Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary; and Jean Wark, a kindergarten teacher at Perkins Elementary in St. Petersburg.
But Monday's celebration wasn't all about teachers.
Paul Norcross took home the night's Unsung Hero award, which honors people behind the scenes who support classroom teachers. Norcross logged more than 400 hours in each of the past two years as a volunteer at Lake St. George Elementary in Palm Harbor. His wife, Barbara, a teacher at the school, nominated him.
Carol Martin, daughter of Tarpon Springs philanthropists A.L. and Helen Ellis, was recognized for continuing her parents' legacy. She was inducted into the Hall of Honor for supporting more than a half-dozen community organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and Metropolitan Ministries.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846.