Malcolm Thomas recalls growing up poor, in a family where no one had ever gone to college.
"Who would think that a student whose mother never learned to read would grow up to be a leader of one of the larger school districts in the state of Florida? It's humbling to me," the Escambia County schools superintendent told colleagues Wednesday.
He overcame the odds, and in so doing gained the drive to help children and families like his through education, which Thomas views as a great equalizer.
That commitment won him accolades as Florida's 2019 superintendent of the year.
"He's a visionary, and above all there's never any question in anybody's mind where is heart is, and that is in the classroom," said Sen. Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "His heart is with the students."
Despite leading the district, Thomas takes time to teach classes monthly, and to send personal notes to teachers regularly, FADSS president Richard Shirley noted.
One definition of leadership, Shirley said, is "gentle pressure relentlessly applied. Our superintendent of the year is someone who meets that definition."
Thomas, who will be considered for national superintendent of the year, accepted the honor by driving home the message that anyone can make it.
"You can be what you want to be if you work to achieve it," he said, calling himself "blessed" to be where he is today.
Thomas succeeds Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego, who won the recognition last year.