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They're all winners, kids say

Calvin Dillon blushed.

As his Gaither High classroom filled with visitors wielding balloons and Diet Dr Pepper (his favorite), the English teacher grinned and stared at his shoes. His students burst into applause.

Why all the attention? Of 222 nominees, Dillon was tapped as one of 10 finalists for Hillsborough County's 2007 teacher of the year. Representatives from the Hillsborough Education Foundation and the School Board surprised the finalists with the news Thursday morning.

The others are Tamara Steele, Carrollwood Elementary fourth grade; Jacqueline Hanlin, McKitrick Elementary media specialist; Renee Stembridge, Chiles Elementary third grade; Darlene Baker, Gorrie Elementary fifth grade; James Gibbs, Burns Middle eighth grade math; Lucille Sharpe, Cypress Creek Elementary resource teacher; Barbara Miraglia, Giunta Middle seventh grade geography; Jacqueline Williams, Brandon High reading and English department chair; and Vicki Ewing, Burnett Middle math.

They'll learn the winner, who will compete for state honors, at a dinner Feb. 1.

Dillon's students said their attention-averse teacher, who infuses his classes with guitar playing and Star Wars philosophy, is worthy of high praise.

"He helps you through everything," junior Megan Seeley said. "He's patient."

That's what teaching is all about, said Dillon, who came to Tampa three years ago from Orange County: "You get paid to be a helpful person."

Steele, who comes from a family of educators, agreed.

Teaching "keeps you on your toes," she said, after posing for pictures for a line of people with cameras. "When I'm around these kids, it keeps me young. And, I learn from them every day."

Her students talked about cooking with Steele, tending a garden outside her classroom and taking her pets home over the weekends. They said she's never too strict and can't be too nice.

"She deserves it," said Cassidy Lawless, 9.

The education foundation sponsors the annual teacher award as a way to encourage academic success. Last year it honored Westchase Elementary kindergarten teacher Susan Mikolajczyk.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 269-5304.