ST. PETERSBURG — Moments after hearing herself announced as Pinellas County Teacher of the Year, a teary-eyed Nicole Kenngott took the podium in front of a full house at Mahaffey Theater.
She thanked family and friends, then turned to a student standing next to her.
"Girl, you're the reason that we do this," the teacher said. "Teaching is the best."
The student was Lilly Crandall, a fifth-grader at Clearwater's Plumb Elementary School who earlier Monday night told the 2,200-person audience that Kenngott has absolutely changed her life.
"She pushes me to be the best version of myself," the 11-year-old added in an interview following the announcement. "She makes me believe."
Kenngott, 33, was chosen by a panel of judges over 128 nominees from schools across the district.
On Tuesday morning, Kenngott caught a ride to school in a limousine, one of several prizes that come with being teacher of the year. Students and staff at Plumb Elementary welcomed her with applause, balloons and hugs.
Lilly Crandall's mother, 40-year-old Kristi Crandall, said Kenngott has gone above and beyond for her daughter, boosting not only her academics, but her emotional growth.
"She's just been a tremendous teacher for Lilly because she knows her," Crandall said. "And she doesn't just know her, she knows every student and knows their strengths and weaknesses. Then she works to make it so those weaknesses aren't weaknesses anymore."
Kenngott has been a teacher at Plumb for three of the four years she has spent in Pinellas since moving from New York. She specializes in deaf studies and special-needs education, and has a master's degree for teaching students with autism.
In a letter nominating Kenngott as teacher of the year, recently retired Plumb principal Sandra Kemp called her an "ambassador for the teaching profession."
"Her enthusiasm for learning is contagious, her passion for teaching is evident in everything that she does, and her desire to help others is truly genuine," the former principal said. "She is an outstanding person, educator and professional."
Kenngott uses innovative, research-based teaching methods that deliver, Kemp said. Her lessons are well-planned and promote continuous learning in an encouraging, supportive environment that inspires students.
In a questionnaire she filled out to be considered for the award, Kenngott noted that she has always been rated as a "highly effective" teacher.
Last year, 60 percent of her students earned a Level 3 or higher on the state English test, indicating performance of satisfactory or better. That compares to 51 percent in the district overall.
"I am data driven in my formal and informal assessments," Kenngott said in the questionnaire. "I work with my students to identify their 'glows and grows' to foster a growth mindset and an enthusiasm for learning."
Lilly Crandall said her teacher knows how to make learning fun. She "puts her personality into everything," the student added.
In a video shown Monday night, Kenngott could be seen dancing around her classroom holding a magic wand. She uses flexible seating so kids can find the learning environment that works for them.
The teacher often leads professional development trainings for fellow teachers at Plumb, bringing the same energy, positivity and support to her colleagues that she does to students, Kemp added.
Kenngott leads parent events, too, interpreting for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the nomination letter. And she has helped plan evening meetings for parents to get more information on testing and resources for their children.
"A student's educational success is like a baseball game, in which it needs all of its players," the teacher said in the questionnaire. "Barriers are more easily overcome when trust has been established between the school, the student and the family."
Minutes after Monday's event, Kenngott called her new title an "amazing honor." She said the best part about teaching in Pinellas is the opportunity she has found for growth and collaboration with other educators.
"This is my passion, to be a teacher," Kenngott said. "I am so grateful to be able to use this as a platform to represent our district."
The annual "Evening of Excellence," organized by the Pinellas Education Foundation, was the first in its history to sell out.
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.