Students who enter Yolanda Whitehead Driskell's classroom at Hillsborough High School might not think they have an aptitude for math.
She convinces them otherwise.
She tells them everything gets better with practice. She empowers them to seek information. "Ask three before you ask me," she says. Work hard when no one is looking, she tells them. That's how she got a full scholarship to college.
"All because of her, now I love math," sophomore Halli Graver told an audience Thursday night at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, where Driskell was named Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year.
More than 600 employees were nominated for three awards. Trapnell Elementary School migrant reading teacher Daisy Ramirez, 30, was honored as Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator. Leena Hasbini, 22, who works in the guidance department at Wharton High School, was named Instructional Support Employee of the Year.
Driskell, 41, earned her undergraduate degree in business but became a teacher 10 years ago. Married with three stepsons, she also coaches volleyball.
In an essay, she described the importance of being attentive to students' needs and interests and connecting with them on an emotional level.
"Sometimes it is through the eyes of another that we find our way in life," she wrote, "and often times, students find their passion through the eyes of a teacher."
The carefully guarded secret that she had won leaked out prematurely when, shortly before the announcement, a slide with her picture flashed onstage.
Driskell later said she saw it, but thought it was a mistake.
But hearing her name announced, she said, "Wow. What an amazing night to be a teacher!"
Ramirez was more subdued in her remarks, thanking her school administration for treating her with respect and her students for inspiring her.
Her award capped a lifetime of achievement.
The daughter of farm workers, Ramirez traveled the country as a child, following the crops.
Some of her friends did not finish high school, she said.
But with the help and encouragement of a high school counselor, Ramirez completed her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida. Inspired by that counselor, she became a teacher.
Her position, split between two east Hillsborough schools, is part classroom instruction and part community outreach. While helping families give their children adequate food and clothing, she also runs a "Sed de Saber" (thirst for knowledge) program that encourages English literacy in the home.
Hasbini, the district's top support employee, handles myriad duties in Wharton's guidance department.
Among them: She organizes and chaperones college visits, helps students locate financial aid information and coordinates parent information nights.
Realizing some students did not have adequate test preparation materials for the SAT and ACT, Hasbini secured a $700 grant and created a lending resource library.
A 2007 graduate of Newsome High School, Hasbini earned her bachelor's degree at 19 and her master's at 21.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.