As a softball-loving youngster growing up in North Carolina, Holly Mickler dreamed of becoming the first female Atlanta Brave.
Then she met her kindergarten teacher.
"I watched the way she loved on us and the way she cared about us like we were her own kids," Mickler, 35, recalled. "From that point on, I never wavered."
Now a 14-year teaching veteran, Mickler wins similar reviews from her own students at Pasco Middle School in Dade City. And on Tuesday, she was recognized for her efforts as Pasco County's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.
Superintendent Kurt Browning, United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace and a host of other officials surprised Mickler in the media center, where she was judging science fair projects, to give her the news.
"This is quite an honor," Mickler said, as she received hugs, flowers and applause. "I'm overwhelmed. This is a great school. That is the best thing about it. I get to share [the award] with them."
Mickler teaches in the school's AVID program, helping students learn about organizing, studying and otherwise preparing themselves for college. Over the years, she has also been a graduation enhancement coach, special education teacher and language arts instructor, too.
Her eighth grade students, working quietly on an assignment while Mickler was judging, said their teacher deserves the honor.
"I knew she was going to win," said Davonte Gray, who ran up to hug Mickler as she returned to the classroom. "She's one of those teachers."
By that, he meant the type who goes above and beyond to help, and not just with classwork.
"She genuinely cares about her students," said Cristal Garcia, who joined others to cheer their teacher. "She's not your typical teacher. She's like a second mom."
Myah Cendan has taken Mickler's classes for two years, and her brother had the teacher before her. She said Mickler encourages students to do their best, even at their worst points.
"I've seen a positive change in my life because of the things she's taught me," Myah said.
Classmate Kassandra Blanco said Mickler encourages her classes to overachieve.
"The fact that she believes we can makes us know we can," Kassandra said. "When we go out in the world, we will remember her because she prepared us."
Principal Dee-Dee Johnson said Mickler does more than that, too, also working with other teachers to find strategies that work in helping the children.
"She really believes in sharing and making sure we're all doing what's best for kids school-wide," Johnson said.
Mickler said she lives two minutes from a John Long Middle in Wesley Chapel. But she chooses to make the drive, she said, because she loves working with the students who might not have all life's privileges handed to them.
"My biggest purpose is to glorify God in everything I do," she said. "This is my way of doing it."
The district's surprise announcement was a change of pace from past practice, when it revealed the Teacher of the Year and other top employees in different categories at a ceremony in January.
Browning said the event had grown "stale," and also too big to give people proper attention. The district changed the model for this year.
It will now include recognitions of all school-level award winners on the west side on Jan. 15, and on the east side on Feb. 19. The county-wide award recipients will have a special dinner on Feb. 26.