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In their own words: Excerpts from finalists' essays for Hillsborough's Excellence in Education awards

Winners in three categories, chosen from among 686 nominees, will be named at a banquet on Jan. 24.
Bonnie Bresnyan, right, Hillsborough County School District’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, is introduced by former student David Soto, center, during last year’s Excellence in Education Awards. This year’s leading support employee, diversity employee and Teacher of the Year will be named Jan. 24.
Bonnie Bresnyan, right, Hillsborough County School District’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, is introduced by former student David Soto, center, during last year’s Excellence in Education Awards. This year’s leading support employee, diversity employee and Teacher of the Year will be named Jan. 24.
Published Jan. 16, 2019

TAMPA — Three educators will be recognized on Jan. 24 as the top teacher, diversity teacher and support employee in the Hillsborough County public school system.

To get this far, they submitted essays that speak to their accomplishments and their spirit, from the painstaking task of decorating hallway bulletin boards to the careful planning of a physical education lesson for children with severe disabilities.

They hold hands and head committees, run demonstration classrooms and lead math night for parents at the local supermarket.

Here, in their own words, is just some of what this year's entrants did to reach the final round:

Nicole Bates, 36, math resource teacher, Mendenhall Elementary, Teacher of the Year:

"I bring math into the community by hosting events at Publix and the Village Inn. Watching parents and their children solve problems together in a realistic setting is inspirational."

Aymee Carbon Mejias, 49, Head Custodian, Eisenhower Middle, Instructional Support Employee:

"I think the most important thing is to listen to all people, even if they speak another language, have a different culture or cannot express it verbally."

Dakeyan C. Graham, 34, Director of Instrumental Music, King High, Teacher of the Year:

"Our classroom is a second home for my students. We refer to ourselves as a family. Since we spend more time together than some of my students spend with their biological families, we have the opportunity to generate and cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect and rapport that translates into an incredible work ethic and desire to always demonstrate our best for one another."

Jordan Luke Harris, 21, Custodian, Stowers Elementary, Instructional Support Employee.

"I am a college student during the day and have studied Spanish and use my ability in that area to direct parents who do not understand very well where certain places are around campus. My childhood preacher told me every Sunday morning, 'people don't care what you know, unless they know you care,' so I've always tried to keep that in mind in my interactions with others."

Scott Hottenstein, 48, Social Studies Teacher, Barrington Middle, Teacher of the Year:

"My passion for education led me to run for School Board this year and also to actively support education issues during the election. Each year, I sharpen my focus on what works, discard what doesn't, and add new things to benefit the students."

Barbara Jean Maxwell, 60, Secretary, Dover Elementary, Instructional Support Employee:

"I love greeting the parents and students each day with a warm happy smile and helping the teachers and staff any way I can."

Le'Jean Michelle Miller, 48, Kindergarten Assistant, Just Elementary, Instructional Support Employee:

"I love making our children smile each day. I love making our school bright and beautiful. Our hallways have display bulletin boards for each classroom. For each month or holiday I love to make our boards come to life. For the first day of school to the last day of school I try to display something different for our children to see. For Black History and our Hispanic Heritage month, I display the history and the culture of our children. I love hearing the students say, 'Ms. Miller, I love what you're doing to the boards today.'"

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Sandra Misciasci, 42, Reading Teacher, Newsome High, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator:

"I purposefully search to find my students' strengths; I make at least 10 positive phone calls to my parents weekly. It is so much fun to hear parents experience a 'good' phone call, it is like they found hope in their child again!"

Amalia Santiago, 40, Gifted Teacher, Crestwood Elementary, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator:

"Since I have had the privilege to be at the same school for 14 years, it has given me an amazing opportunity to be a part of many things. The ones I am most proud of is starting an annual Father/Daughter dance. I feel that especially with our population, it is essential that our girls understand they are beautiful, special and valued."

Anne Smith, 64, Physical Education Teacher, Caminiti Exceptional Center, Teacher of the Year:

"I gear my lessons and my relationships with students with the belief that confidence in P.E. leads to positive feelings of self-esteem and that P.E. activities strengthen peer and family relationships. P.E. is an excellent laboratory for cooperation skills that transfer into the classroom and increase independence for life."

Jeffrey Van Hise, 28, Fourth Grade Teacher, Gorrie Elementary, Teacher of the Year:

"I unlock potential by creating a risk-free climate that embraces diversity and fosters relationships with every student, every day. I dissolve school-home barriers using social media and family courses. By bringing math night to a local grocer, I created a community partnership. I crafted the school theme, 'Be the Change,' and will adopt a charity with my class."

Unique Vernon, 42, Social Worker, Stewart Middle, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator:

"My role as a servant leader is to help parents, teachers and students identify and address barriers that interfere with student success and their future endeavors."

Tamon Williams, 27, Third Grade Teacher, Foster Elementary, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator:

"I've given my sweat, my heart, and my smiles to being (that) teacher! The teacher who waits outside with a student until their parent comes home, the teacher who takes a student to get a haircut the day before the picture day because their mom is at her wit's end, the teacher who attends sporting events that are extracurricular and on Saturday mornings at 8:30 a.m., a teacher who picks up the phone in the middle of the night because a student is scared and doesn't know who else to call. I'm that nurturing teacher who loves and gives and loves and gives AND teaches her students so they'll be prepared for whatever life hands them."

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.