TAMPA — Miranda Harwood’s students missed her when she was out sick.
They also missed the corny jokes that she posts in the hallway outside her classroom at Brooker Elementary School in Brandon. Like the one about the right angle telling an acute angle that she was “cute.” And the acute angle’s reply: “You are always right, so it must be true.”
Harwood wants her fourth-grade students to learn math, and she wants math to be fun.
She tells them it is not “her” classroom, but “our” classroom. “If we do not all make it to the finish line, none of us do,” she wrote in her winning essay to become Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year.
Harwood won the top honor and was acknowledged along with 704 other educators Thursday during the school district’s annual reception at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
The Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year award, named for a trailblazing teacher and administrator in Lee County, went to Keyada George, a seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Wilson Middle School.
Angela White, sign language interpreter at Colson Elementary School, was named Instructional Support Employee of the Year.
It was the last such event for superintendent Jeff Eakins, who is retiring this spring and appeared to fight back tears as the audience gave him a standing ovation near the end of the program.
The Pinellas County school system will announce its Teacher of the Year on Wednesday during the Pinellas Education Foundation’s annual “Evening of Excellence” at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The winner will be chosen from 10 finalists.
In Pasco County, Gulf High economics teacher Jennifer Dixon received the top teaching award last month, and the Hernando County school system named Carrie Wilson as its Teacher of the Year on Jan. 10. Wilson is a counselor at Challenger K-8 school.
For 37-year-old Harwood, who will go on to compete for the state Teacher of the Year title, Thursday’s honor follows a career that began 14 years ago.
As much as she uses humor and motivational activities to keep her students engaged, she is also a self-described "data queen" who plots her students test scores from the previous year on a spreadsheet before she even meets them.
She has a Monday Math Club for her top students, and after-school sessions on Wednesdays and Thursdays for those below their grade level on state exams or on the bubble between passing and not passing.
Kids in her class vote on Student of the Month. They choose rewards and consequences. She lets them come up with ideas for lessons — always a homework assignment, two weeks before the standard should be taught.
"We never know what burdens our students are taking on at home," Harwood wrote. She wants school to be a safe and caring place, and not just for those in her class.
As students are entering the building, Harwood likes to stand in the hallway and greet every student and or parent who walks by. “By this time of year,” she wrote, “I have just about memorized all the names of the kids that use my hallway.”
Introducing her Thursday evening was Gabriel Camacho, a Brooker student now in fifth grade.
He joked about another of Harwood’s quirky habits: She would try to toss the dry erase markers into the trash when they ran out of ink. But, he said, “she would miss every time. It was hilarious to watch.”
Gabriel also said Harwood had a way of calming him down when he was upset, and giving him confidence. “When you have a good teacher, you want to learn,” he said. “But when you have a bad teacher, you want to give up. She has made every student feel like they are her own child.”
Accepting the award, Harwood thanked her parents and her husband. She praised the school for its high standards. She recalled being asked once, by a student, what she would be if she were not a teacher. “Sad," she answered.
To her colleagues in the audience, she said, “Every teacher deserves this moment, deserves a night like tonight.”