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At first, Malla Kolhoff resisted being nominated for Pinellas County's best teacher.

She had come close before. In 2003, she was one of five top finalists for the title of Outstanding Educator, announced in a swanky awards ceremony at Tropicana Field.

She thought someone else should get a chance. But the director of the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High told her she deserved it.

On Wednesday night, the judges agreed.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would become a reality," said Kolhoff, 55, her voice shaking and eyes brimming with tears.

This year, the honor, the cash and the trip to the Bahamas are all hers. She plans to take her husband on the three-day cruise.

About 800 people filled tables at the Trop on Wednesday night, sipping cocktails and munching on food from the buffet before the awards were broadcast on PBS. The event is designed like an awards show because teachers deserve special recognition, said Rich Engwall, senior vice president of Pinellas Education Foundation, which puts on the program.

"I don't know a profession that's more important to us than teaching," he said.

Her image projected on a giant screen, Kolhoff explained why she engages students, who described her as a memorable storyteller in her video.

"Students are at home being entertained by television and YouTube and the Internet, and they come to a classroom and it can be boring," Kolhoff said. "I don't want them to be bored in my room."

Originally, 234 teachers were nominated for the award. Judges narrowed the list to 25 semifinalists before visiting classrooms and winnowing the list to 15 finalists in five categories. Kolhoff won the Commitment to the Improvement of the Profession category and beat out the other four category winners for the top prize of Outstanding Educator.

A Dunedin resident, Kolhoff joined the Pinellas County school system in 1985, teaching in Tarpon Springs and at Seminole High School before landing at Palm Harbor, where she's taught since it opened in 1996.

In addition to the cruise, Kolhoff will receive an Apple computer, a commemorative ring, a $2,500 scholarship to Nova Southeastern Universityand $2,000 in cash.

Today, she'll travel to and from school in a limousine. Then, Pinellas officials hope, she'll be the first teacher from the district to become the statewide Teacher of the Year.


Outstanding Educator winners

Commitment to Improvement of the Profession: Malla Kolhoff, Palm Harbor University High

Creativity and Innovation: David Mapp Jr., Palm Harbor Middle

Inspiring Students to Performance at Higher Levels: Louis Pekrul, Lealman Intermediate

Commitment to Children and Families: Francia Germosen, Eisenhower Elementary

Ambassador of the Profession: Cynthia Young, Seminole Elementary