As a teacher, I am always pleased to hear positive news about my colleagues during this bitter period of blaming teachers for all the wrongs and perceived wrongs in our public schools.
Fortunately, the Pinellas County School District and the Pinellas Education Foundation collaborate each year to honor a classroom teacher with the Outstanding Educator of the Year award.
These are this year's six finalists: Holly Del Duca, 4th grade reading/writing, Sandy Lane Elementary, Clearwater; Chad Guess, 6th-8th grade music at Seminole Middle; Sarah Painter, 4th grade reading/writing, Clearwater Elementary; Kathryn Rennie, Adult Basic Education and GED, Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, St. Petersburg; Christina L. Vaughn, 9th-12th grade, Exceptional Student Education Center, Pinellas Park; and Stephanie Whitaker, 5th grade, Dunedin Elementary. The winner will be named in February.
They were selected by evaluators for the district and the foundation through a rigorous process that focuses on the "education triad" of the teacher, the student and the experience that passes between them. They share a passion for teaching. To them, teaching is not just a job. It is their calling. In their classrooms, they connect intellectually and emotionally with their students.
I spoke with Rennie. Although her students at Tomlinson are adults, she exemplifies the qualities of outstanding classroom teachers everywhere. Her grandmother taught for 47 years. Her mother, who still substitutes, retired as a Pinellas elementary teacher. Rennie began her career in special education 29 years ago as a learning disabilities teacher at Dixie Hollins High.
Like the other finalists, Rennie, 51, is effective because she cares about her students as people, she cares that they learn and she observes to ascertain the individual needs of students. These qualities create the trust necessary for the teaching/learning relationship to succeed.
"I quickly learned that many students struggle to graduate," she said. "There are as many different reasons as there are individual students. Some students have learning or emotional troubles. Others have trouble with the law. Some students need to work, some have moved many times, some have been critically ill or pregnant, and many have language barriers. Some are in foster care or are homeless. Some students are new to town and their credits don't transfer, they have been homeschooled, or they simply want to go to college early. What was clear to me was that some students simply slip through the cracks."
In 1993, Rennie found her niche when she became a teacher for the district's Adult Basic Education/GED program. Its innovative teaching methods, using an individualized and performance-based approach, fit perfectly with her background in special education.
When selecting Rennie as a finalist, the evaluators considered her role in helping the county's GED program graduate more students than all others in the state during 2009-10.
Last year, Rennie taught at Tomlinson's partnership site on the downtown campus of St. Petersburg College, where 144 of her students finished with a high school diploma. She said many have gone on to college or to postsecondary career/technical education programs. Others have found jobs or better jobs.
"All are on their way to being self-sufficient, taxpaying citizens who can take care of their families and contribute to their communities and their country," she wrote in an email. "I know the obstacles my hard-working students face very day, yet they persevere because they know the power of education.
"I also know that I may be the last teacher a student trusts to educate him and to help him earn his diploma. I know how lives are changed with each diploma. This is what motivates me every day."
Bill Maxwell can be reached at bmaxwell@ tampabay.com.