The new Pinellas Teacher of the Year, Nancy Caldemeyer, choked back tears and accepted her prize on behalf of the other first-grade teachers at Lake St. George Elementary and all Pinellas teachers.
"I'm so honored to be a representative of teaching in Pinellas County," she said. "The team I'm with now is just tops. They help make my job so much fun."
Caldemeyer, 35, was chosen Tuesday in a ceremony at the Belleview Mido hotel from among 10 finalists. She has taught first grade at Lake St. George in Palm Harbor since it opened four years ago. Before that, she taught at Safety Harbor and High Point elementaries.
Caldemeyer, who grew up in Columbus, Ind., and attended Indiana University, said she always wanted to be a teacher _ though at first she was a reluctant pupil who cried every day at Thomas Jefferson Kindergarten in Ashtabula, Ohio.
As a child, she would play school on the steps of her family's house with her kittens as pupils. In high school, she was a member of the future teachers club.
"I can't imagine a day when I didn't go and teach," she said.
For the first time, each of the finalists was introduced by a student from her or his class.
Caldemeyer was introduced by 6-year-old Joy Chang.
"Mrs. Caldemeyer is a great teacher. She makes school fun," Joy said. "I like it when we act out the stories we read. . . . She gives us lots of smiles and hugs. I love Mrs. Caldemeyer."
Her class is hands-on, Caldemeyer said. One of the children's favorite activities is Reader's Theater, in which the children act out the stories as other children read them.
She hopes children leave her classroom with a sense of responsibility toward learning and a feeling that they are special. "I think all our children feel very loved, and we care about them," she said.
Teaching is still rewarding, even with the ups and downs caused by this year's budget crisis, she said, and so many teachers are doing great things for children.
"All the teachers out there are very dedicated. I'm thrilled to be a representative of them. There are hundreds of people, thousands like me. I don't think I'm anything special," Caldemeyer said. "I think I'm a representative."
She and her husband have two daughters, Angela, 10, and Jamie, 8.
"She does a great job with our kids, too," her husband, Bob, said.
The other finalists were:
Melody Bailey, social studies teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School. She was introduced by Ebony Russell.
Yvonne Coyne, a science teacher at Tarpon Springs Middle School. She was introduced by Tiffany Davis.
Linda Johnson, a second-grade teacher at Shore Acres Elementary in St. Petersburg. She was introduced by Andy Vann.
Debra Linguanti, a first-grade teacher at Woodlawn Elementary in St. Petersburg. She was introduced by Patrick Flaherty.
Marga Mattson, a sixth-grade science teacher at Palm Harbor Middle School. She was introduced by Michelle Clements.
Anne Quarles, an English teacher at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg. She was introduced by Elizabeth Barnes.
Connie Jo Sartori, a sixth-grade teacher at Seminole Middle School. She was introduced by Mindy Fothergill.
Carol Lynn Uhlmann, a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg. She was introduced by Han Ly.
James Yerman, a special education teacher at Osceola High in Seminole. He was introduced by Guy Sloben.
The Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by CIGNA Employee Benefits Co. Each finalist received $1,000 from CIGNA, plus prizes from other businesses. Caldemeyer received an additional $1,000, two round-trip tickets anywhere USAir flies in the continental United States and a computer and printer.