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CLASSROOM LEGENDS

More than 94 teachers earned nominations this year in the Pinellas Education Foundation's Outstanding Educators recognition program. The nominations came from other teachers, students, parents and community leaders.

The district selected 25 semifinalists to represent Pinellas' top teachers in five categories: Commitment to Improvement of the Profession, Creativity and Innovation, Inspiring Students to Performance at Higher Levels, Commitment to Children and Families, and Ambassador of the Profession.

Based on classroom visits and interviews, a team of judges narrowed the field to three in each category, two of whom made it into more than one category.

On Feb. 10, five educators will be named category winners and one of them will be selected at a dinner hosted by the education foundation to represent the district in the state teacher of the year program.

Here is a look at the finalists.

COMMITMENT TO IMPROVEMENT OF THE PROFESSION

JANET ACERRA, fifth-grade teacher at Forest Lakes Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1985

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from Long Island University; master's degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, 2000 Outstanding Florida Elementary Science Teacher, Who's Who Among American Teachers 1998, WTSP-Ch. 10's Teacher of the Month, 1994 Pinellas County Teacher of the Year finalist, Sallie Mae Beginning Teacher award 1985

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Janet Acerra exemplifies an outstanding educator and deserves to be recognized for her achievement and dedication to the field of education." Ruth

Paetzold, Forest Lakes Elementary School teacher

Q. If you had unlimited resources, what would you buy for your classroom?

"If I had unlimited resources, I would like to have laptops for every one of my students both for the development of their skills and to prepare them for the century we're in now. Since the Internet is such a powerful tool for teaching, I'd like them to have access to it. I could utilize it better if each child could tap into a particular Web site and visit it and do a virtual tour looking directly at their screens."

NANCY TONDREAULT, fourth-grade teacher at Bauder Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1989

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from Nova Southeastern University; master's degree in curriculum and instruction from National-Louis University; gifted certification endorsement from Pinellas County Schools

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, Reading First regional professional developer, Pay for Performance recipient 2003, Shiloh Baptist Missionary Church appreciation award, Pi Lambda Theta Honorary, National Education Honorary

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Mrs. Tondreault believes new teachers should be aware of and contribute to the initiatives of the district. She assists in helping them attain skills to assimilate into the culture and expectations of the district." Rangel Dockery, Bauder Elementary fourth-grade team leader

Q. What do you consider your greatest asset as a teacher?

"I think my compassion and empathy for children and my willingness to work with my colleagues are my greatest assets."

MARIA WYATT, second- and third-grade Spanish teacher at Perkins Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1990

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degrees in psychology and Spanish and a master's degree in English for Speakers of Other Languages from the University of South Florida

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, Fulbright scholarship to Japan recipient, Support for Elementary Educators through Distance Education in Spanish developer, National Network of Early Language Learning representative

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "She fills her students

with enthusiasm, a love of learning and an amazing understanding of language and culture." Lillian Lewis, Perkins Elementary teacher

Q. What do you consider one of the greatest challenges of being a Spanish instructor?

"I think the greatest challenge is not just teaching, but imparting a love for learning. It doesn't matter what you're teaching as long as you can help children discover new ideas. It's important to understand that each child is an individual with his or her own needs and to be able to meet that child's needs."

CREATIVITY & INNOVATION

DEBBIE FISCHER, 10th- through 12th-grade teacher and director of the finance academy at Northeast High School

TEACHING SINCE: 1977

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in business education from the University of Florida; master's degree in administration and supervision from Nova Southeastern University

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Tech Prep Network Caterpillar Exemplary Worksite Learning award, National Academy Foundation presenter, National Tech Prep Conference presenter, Who's Who Among America's Teachers 1999-2003, Kagan cooperative education trainer, Florida Outstanding Future Business Leader of America sponsor, Future Business Leader of America district director for 10 years

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Mrs. Fischer has developed a program that exemplifies innovation and uniqueness. Students see the connections between what they learn in school and the real world." Michael Miller, Northeast High principal

Q. Who has been your greatest inspiration?

"What inspired me to create the program that I have now has to be my kids. The kids are the motivating factor in making me do what I do. The other factor is that so many of my students come back and visit me. I see how successful they are, and that drives me even more."

BARBARA GURIAN, first-grade teacher at Plumb Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1991

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Recipient of $65,000 in grants, in-school curriculum developer and trainer, student government and multicultural diversity facilitator

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Mrs. Gurian is not satisfied with the status

quo or doing just what is expected, but rather constantly looks for innovative ways to make the learning environment more challenging, productive and fun." Sandra Leanes, Plumb Elementary principal

Q. If another subject could be incorporated into the curriculum, what do you think it should be?

"In the first grade, we're lucky we can incorporate all the subject areas we do. Probably time is the factor that most frustrates teachers. I would like to be able to incorporate technology to a greater extent into my classroom. I would like to have more time to lead children into the things they'll need in this new century, such as interacting and corresponding with other populations worldwide."

MICHAEL KLAPKA, 11th-grade Advanced Placement and American history teacher at Largo High School

TEACHING SINCE: 1981

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in secondary social science education and a master's degree in U.S. history from the University of South Florida

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Initiated the Learning Bus, an interactive field trip with lesson plans; James Madison Foundation fellow

FROM HIS NOMINATION FORM: "Mr. Klapka's knowledge of U.S. history and our government is extensive. I have heard from students in his Advanced Placement American history class who say they have never understood history like they do after being in his class." Patricia Palmateer, 21st Century Learning Center and Teaching Arts Academy at Largo High program coordinator

Q. In your opinion, what is the most important quality a teacher can possess?

"I think enthusiasm, because if you have that, the other things will follow. If the students get the sense the class is important to me, they will be enthusiastic, too."

INSPIRING STUDENTS TO PERFORMANCE AT HIGHER LEVELS

NANCY SEARS-TOPPER, ninth- through 12th-grade drama teacher at Seminole High School

TEACHING SINCE: 1993

EDUCATION: Bachelor of general studies/theater from the University of Kansas; teaching certificate from the University of South Florida

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Abba Dabba children's summer theater owner-director, Sunshine and Company owner, director and entertainer, Ruth Eckerd Hall summer theater director and curriculum adviser, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center summer theater director

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Mrs. Topper is truly concerned about identifying the strengths and needs of each individual. . . . She makes her students proud to be a team." Sandra Rosado, parent of a Seminole High student

Q. What is the most important thing you've learned about teaching since you've been on the job?

"I think the most important thing I've learned as a teacher is to allow the students to teach me. I continue to grow from what I learn from them. There is so much to learn from each child who comes in."

TIM TOPPER, kindergarten through fifth-grade drama teacher at Perkins Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1992

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degrees in business and theater from Towson University in Maryland

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Abba Dabba Children's Entertainment vice president, summer instructor at Ruth Eckerd Hall and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, member of the Screen Actors Guild

FROM HIS NOMINATION FORM: "With his enthusiasm, fun-loving spirit and obvious love of the art, he opens the door to a whole new world many children have never seen, much less entered." Maria Wyatt, Perkins Elementary teacher and parent

Q. What advice would you give new teachers?

"I would tell them, "Approach every day like it's a new day for the child.' You have to make everything new even though you've done it before. You have to take it to the students as if it's the first time you've ever taught it."

LAURIE WRIGHT, fourth-grade teacher at Ponce de Leon Elementary School

TEACHING SINCE: 1997

EDUCATION: Combination bachelor's/master's degree in varying exceptionalities through the Teacher for All Children program at the University of South Florida; general education and varying exceptionalities elementary education certifications

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 2001 Council for Exceptional Children Rookie Teacher of the Year finalist, Pinellas Education Foundation minigrant recipient

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Laurie has a heart big enough for all children. Because of her commitment to her students, her love of learning and her ability to inspire her children to learn, we feel that Laurie is a model teacher for all to look up to." Ponce de Leon Elementary fourth-grade teaching team

Q. Do you ever have moments of self-doubt?

"I think I will always ask, "What is the best approach for each individual student?' It's very important for me to recognize each child's uniqueness. I try a variety of approaches in order to reach them. I never try just one."

COMMITMENT TO CHILDREN & FAMILIES

BARBARA GURIAN, first-grade teacher at Plumb Elementary School

(Please see information above.)

JONATHAN MARINA, ninth- through 12th-grade science teacher at Seminole High School

TEACHING SINCE: 1994

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in science education from Florida State University

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Alpha Institute Inc. past program director, Top 100 Outstanding Educators of Pinellas County 2001, Who's Who Among American High School Teachers 1995 and 1997, Pinellas Education Foundation minigrant recipient

FROM HIS NOMINATION FORM: "I believe that Mr. Marina understands the value of building bridges with the community to encourage highest student achievement. During our talks over the years, I have been impressed . . . with the many activities he is involved in." Ada Ward-Timmons, Seminole High assistant principal

Q. What is the most important thing parents can do to help their children succeed?

"They can take a genuine interest in their child's life. Come out to the school, meet the teachers. Ask something as simple as, "Do you have homework?' Showing a true concern for the child makes a big difference. Kids act like they don't want their parents around, but they really do want them to ask questions."

NANCY SEARS-TOPPER, ninth- through 12th-grade drama teacher at Seminole High School

(Please see information above.)

AMBASSADOR OF THE PROFESSION

ROBIN BENOIT, band director at Largo Middle School

TEACHING SINCE: 1986

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in music education from Stetson University

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 2002 Pinellas County Secondary Music Educator of the Year, Pinellas County Music Educators Association president, Associated

Board of the Royal Schools presenting teacher, FMEA All State percussion coordinator, Pinellas County All County Bands coordinator, related arts department chair at Largo Middle School

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Her efforts . . . have taken music to many students who may never have considered playing any musical instrument. She has inspired and educated a large number of students who have gone on to participate in high school and college programs." William B. Cooper, Largo Middle School principal

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing educators today?

"I think probably the biggest challenge facing educators today is the tug of war between wanting to do everything we can for our students balanced against the fact that there is so much asked of us as educators. With high stakes testing, the accountability bar has been raised. There is so much put on teachers, but they still have to be there for their students."

TEMPEST BOOTH, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Southside Fundamental School

TEACHING SINCE: 1970

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in sociology from David Lipscomb College in Nashville; master's degree in science, education specialist degree and doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: No Child Left Behind technology grant recipient, 2002 Discovery Channel Young Scientists Challenge mentor, Delta Kamma Gamma international honor society

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "Her classroom is at times a symposium, a learning lab and a think tank all rolled into one. On every single day, students are challenged and mesmerized. Each day in her class is better than the last." Linda Kenefick, language arts department chairwoman at Southside Fundamental

Q. What career would you choose second to teaching?

"After I retire form the Pinellas County school system, I have the full intention of becoming a college professor of teacher education. If it was something besides education, it would be in the field of medicine with some emphasis on pure science."

SUSAN TERRY, seventh-grade language arts teacher at Carwise Middle School

TEACHING SINCE: 1973

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from Youngstown State University; master's degree in curriculum and instruction from National-Louis University

ACCOMPLISHMENTS: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, 2004 Palm Harbor Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year, 2004 Palm Harbor Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year, National Citizenship Education Teacher award, Carwise Middle School Technology Teacher of the Year nominee 1996-97, Pinellas County Teacher of the Year nominee 1994-95 and 1997-98

FROM HER NOMINATION FORM: "I am extremely honored to say that she has made a commitment not only to the future of her students, but America's future as well. Her commitment to students' efforts to achieve educational excellence is commendable and serves as an outstanding model for others to emulate." Raina O'Neil, Southwest Florida Water Management District

Q. What would you like to accomplish before you retire?

"I want to motivate my students more than anything else. I want to keep working with students. I don't think I ever want to stop."

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