Debby Dowell was named Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year on Thursday night with all the trappings of a coronation - roses, spotlights, paparazzi, a cheering fan club and even a luxury car.
"What we do is so important," the Bartels Middle School teacher told the crowd of more than 1,500, fanning her eyes and pressing a hand to her chest. "And isn't it cool to drive a Lexus for doing what I love?"
Offstage, Maribeth Franklin, principal at the New Tampa school, whipped out a cell phone.
"Get the band ready," she said, laughing with disbelief into the receiver. "She won. Game on in the morning."
Just the fuss over being one of the 12 finalists for the award, selected out of 222 nominees across Hillsborough, had blown away Dowell. Her brothers, daughters, friends and co-workers flocked to the awards dinner at the Tampa Convention Center.
"I'm being treated like royalty for just doing what I do every day," said Dowell, 50, who teaches sixth-grade language arts, reading and geography, and eight-grade reading.
This fall has been a big one for her. On top of Thursday's honor, she also received her national board certification and graduated in December with her master's degree, her principal noted.
She goes "above and beyond,'' Franklin said. "Debby volunteered to teach six classes, and the normal work day for a teacher is five classes.''
Dowell still found time to open her classroom each morning before school and during lunch for students needing extra help. At Bartels, she chaired the School Advisory Committee last year. She serves as a school team leader and helps to select novels for middle schools across Hillsborough.
Plus, she's a single mother with two daughters in college.
Eighth-grader Roman Thompson, introducing her at the ceremony, said big words didn't do justice to the teacher of 15 years, who entered his life during an in-school suspension.
"She did not just see some black kid with dreads and an attitude," he said. "She took time out of her schedule, usually after school, to teach me. And now I'm an As and Bs honor roll student."
Dowell always wanted to teach, but studied accounting in college, thinking that she needed to make more money. Years later, she earned a degree in elementary education at the University of South Florida. She recently completed her master's online at Walden University, specializing in reading and literacy.
Her prize basket as Teacher of the Year, sponsored by the Hillsborough Education Foundation, included $1,000 cash, a classroom grant and scholarships to continue her education. She also won a four-day, three-night vacation to the Bahamas and two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines.
Like half of the Teacher of the Year finalists, however, she didn't receive a merit pay bonus earlier this year, which is based heavily on student test scores. About one-third of Hillsborough's teachers received it.
Not that anything could beat the cream-colored Lexus that Dowell gets to drive for the next year, in lieu of a beat-up Toyota Camry in need of new tires. "I feel like a rock star," she said.
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this story. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.
Stephanie Bikowski, fourth grade at Burney Elementary
Terry Senhauser, fourth grade at Nelson Elementary
Courtney Clark, fourth grade at Gorrie Elementary
Mary Booth, second grade at Chiles Elementary
Marcy Ringdahl, media specialist at Summerfield Elementary
Kristy Verdi, seventh-grade geography at Randall Middle
Isidoros Passalaris, geography at Williams Middle Magnet
Donald Langland, music teacher at Brandon High
Sylvia Albritton, works with juvenile offenders and students receiving treatment for substance abuse.
Juanita Sanderson, first grade at West Tampa Elementary
Ross Anderson, teaches a program to raise academic expectations for students at Sligh Middle.
For more education news and bios on the 11 finalists, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.