LAND O'LAKES — Forty-two International Baccalaureate calculus students tapped away on their laptops, researching topics for explorations into how math applies to some aspect of their daily lives.
They studied tennis serves, traditional Vietnamese games and earthquakes.
Land O'Lakes High teacher Pat Connolly advised each of them like an expert, replete with arcane facts, pertinent questions and even the occasional Hunger Games reference.
"I was actually not understanding what I was doing before. Now I have a better understanding," said senior Nayo Joseph, who was studying lottery statistics and gaming theory. "I decided to challenge myself with this class. I am glad I have a teacher I can go to when I need help."
Connolly won recognition for his excellence in teaching on Saturday, receiving the district's annual Teacher of the Year award.
Without knowing he had won, many of Connolly's students said he was deserving.
Senior Alex Levinar praised his teacher for helping him figure out how to complete his work without telling him exactly what to do.
"He didn't give anything away. He left the research up to me," Levinar said after consulting Connolly on his project about football passing completion rates. "Sometimes a teacher will tell you what happens in the experiment, but he won't tell you what to look at. (Connolly) tells you what you need to take into account. He makes it clear what you need to do."
His enthusiasm also is infectious.
"You can tell he loves what he's doing," senior Crystal Schmitt said. "I feel like he's able to bring math into everything he talks about. . . . If he wasn't interested in the subject, we wouldn't be either."
Connolly, 58, was humbled by his students' assessment of his work. Once on track to attend MIT and become an engineer, he said he knew from the first time he tutored high school classmates as a junior that he was destined to be a teacher.
"What I found was, I was good at it," he said. "I was able to take something that I learned in class . . . and I could get somebody to understand it. I found that extraordinarily rewarding. I felt really good every day I helped someone."
Having found his role in life, Connolly decided to skip MIT for the University of Chicago, where he studied education. He started teaching in Missouri after graduation. At first, he admitted, he wasn't very good.
"This is an art," he said. "It takes time to develop that art."
After five years, Connolly felt like he needed to get out of the field. Not that he didn't like it; he simply couldn't afford to raise a family on his pay. So he joined the Navy as an instructor in its nuclear power school, later writing teaching manuals and training other teachers.
The farther he moved away from the classroom, though, the more he missed it. So Connolly decided to return to schools.
He and his wife applied for jobs in Pasco County during a job fair and never looked back. He started at Ridgewood High School, transferred when the school lost positions and landed at Land O'Lakes High, where he's been for 23 years.
Over time, Connolly has won a reputation as one of the smartest teachers around — kids regularly deem him "most informative" in their yearbook superlatives. He's also been one of the most publicly outspoken teachers in Pasco County, frequently offering his opinion on policies and district proposals at School Board meetings and through pointed e-mails to officials.
A member of the teachers contract negotiating team, who helped craft this year's pay raise shares model, Connolly is running for president of the United School Employees of Pasco. He said he sees the political side of his job as equally important as the academic side.
"I know if we didn't have a union in this county, things would be worse," Connolly said.
That's after school work, though. First and foremost to Connolly is getting his students to understand and like math.
On that front, the teens give him high marks.
"He makes you pay attention with stories," senior Jayanth Gone said of Connolly, also an amateur actor known to occasionally show up in class in costume and character.
"He's funny, too," added Levinar. "He makes class fun. . . . He will laugh and make jokes, but we're still learning."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.