As a stunned Stephanie Whitaker approached the lectern to accept the award as Pinellas County's Outstanding Educator for 2012, she lamented that she hadn't prepared an acceptance speech.
So the fifth-grade Dunedin Elementary teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages did what was natural: She spoke directly to the students who landed her there.
Whitaker said she had just spoken to her students earlier that day about finishing school, having a dream and going after it.
"Do what you want to do and go and be better every day at it," she said.
Whitaker beat out a list of more than 100 educators, which was whittled to 20 semifinalists and six finalists, for this year's top teacher award.
She was honored during a Monday night ceremony at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The event included several student song and dance performances, a tribute to the late School Board member Lew Williams, and a reception celebrating the school district's centennial.
Whitaker joined Pinellas County schools in 2007 after earning a bachelor's degree in global and international studies from the State University of New York. She earned a master's in elementary education/ESOL from the University of South Florida in 2008.
The 29-year-old Holiday woman has transformed the school and its students since embarking on her teaching career, Dunedin Elementary Principal Kathy Brickley noted on her nomination form.
Outside the classroom, Whitaker helps facilitate various training programs and workshops. She mentors students and teachers, and organizes events that encourage family involvement. She has applied for and won several grants, including one this year aimed at instilling a sense a community in students.
"I love being a teacher. I can't imagine myself in any other profession," Whitaker said as she stood backstage after the ceremony, clutching a bouquet of flowers and a crystal cup-shaped trophy. "When I walk into my classroom, I feel really at home."
"We're family," chimed in student Jordan Cuevas, 11.
Jordan, who was a student of Whitaker's when she taught fourth grade last year, said it's Whitaker's teaching style — in which she lets students voice their thoughts and give opinions during lessons — that makes her stand out.
"We do hands-on lessons, we do science experiments and she's just Ms. Whitaker," he said. "She deserves it. She's worked very hard for this."
On stage, Whitaker thanked her colleagues, students and parents. Then she turned to her fellow nominees, and said she was "honored to be here because you all are excelling at what you do."
The Pinellas Education Foundation, Bright House Networks, Ditek, Humana and the Tampa Bay Rays sponsored Monday night's awards ceremony.
Whitaker will receive prizes including a MacBook Air computer, a $2,000 scholarship to Nova Southeastern University, $1,000 from the Pinellas Education Foundation, museum and hotel passes, and a limousine ride to school this morning. She will compete this summer for the statewide Teacher of the Year award.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.