WESLEY CHAPEL — Tabatha Whaley and Jen Turner dropped off their students in the Sand Pine Elementary School cafeteria and headed to the outdoor covered play area where they knew only that a surprise awaited.
Reading specialist Angie Westbrook stood outside the lunch room door, holding a handful of keys — one for each teacher — to receive a treasure chest with a personalized thank you note and chocolate inside. A few feet away, assistant principal Todd Cluff fired up the grill to prepare burgers and hot dogs for the staff lunch.
Abba's Super Trooper blared through the speakers.
Turner and Whaley laughed as Westbrook draped the blue ribboned key over their necks.
"Awww, this is wonderful," Whaley said as she opened the small chest. "I love it, love it, love it."
It's been a rough year for teachers. They've endured a new reading textbook adoption, additional training on Learning Focused Strategies, implementation of daily physical education classroom lessons and more. And that's on top of a tight financial year in which the district has not given raises or even contracted step increases for an additional year of service.
"Our teachers are being pulled in so many directions, and they're really doing a fantastic job," Cluff said.
Rather than just say "thanks," Cluff, Westbrook and principal Ginny Yanson decided to do a little something special for the teaching staff. That was a lunchtime barbecue complete with homemade side dishes, chocolatey treats including a cake with the frosted inscription "We treasure you," and an after-school happy hour at Tijuana Flats.
"They're always good to us," said technology specialist Michelle Lattke, Sand Pine's teacher of the year, as she spooned some potato salad onto her plate. "But this is such a nice treat. You can't go wrong with food."
"It's just nice to know that they care," ESE teacher Jessica Medina added.
Inside the cafeteria, students eating grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza slices were jealous that the burgers and hot dogs were just outside the door. But they didn't begrudge their teachers the treat one bit.
"They deserve to be treated special, because they teach us a lot of things that can help us in life," fifth-grader Nick Franco said.
"They work hard," fifth-grader Alyssa Chermak said in agreement. "And they're cool."
Westbrook shared the kids' view of the teachers, and said she thought Friday's celebration was the least she and the other school leaders could do.
"It's important to stop and acknowledge people, especially when they're working so hard," she said.
Speech pathologist Gina "Mighty" Miller suggested it's the little things that make all the difference.
"No other school would ever do this," she said. "I don't know of any reading specialist and assistant principal that would do this as a thank you. This is what makes us come back."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.