ST. PETERSBURG — David Martinez-Cooley had turned away from the crowd and was whispering to a student onstage at Mahaffey Theater when the announcement boomed through the speakers: He was Pinellas County’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.
He snapped his head forward and, with a grin suggesting disbelief, came to the microphone: “I am completely stunned.”
The Leila Davis Elementary music teacher first congratulated nine other finalists for the award who were standing behind him, then thanked all the other teachers working in schools across the county for being “teacher of the year” for their students every day.
“It is not just one teacher that makes everything go 'round,” he said, addressing a sell-out crowd that showed up Wednesday evening for the annual Evening of Excellence, sponsored by the Pinellas Education Foundation.
Martinez-Cooley, 46, started at Leila Davis in 2012, after five years teaching music at Belleair Elementary. In all, he has worked for 13 years in Pinellas public schools, including teaching summer and recovery math courses to high school students since 2014.
He holds bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and music education, as well as a master’s in mathematics education from the University of Florida. He has helped lead other music educators by presenting at district and state training events, as well as by holding officer positions in the county’s Music Educators Association.
In a letter nominating Martinez-Cooley for the honor, Leila Davis principal William Durst called him a “driven, relentless and caring teacher-leader who exemplifies excellence.”
He pointed to the teacher’s willingness to think outside the box about how kids learn, and his dedication to the school district’s vision for 100 percent student success.
Durst said programs run by Martinez-Cooley are respected not only locally but across the state. He praised his continued efforts to grow them, noting the addition of a beginning band program at the Clearwater school this year.
“His positive influence and leadership serves as a beacon of light for all to follow,” the principal wrote. “He serves as a role model for all educators.”
In 2018, the chorus led by Martinez-Cooley was asked to perform at Pinellas’ Secondary All-County Music Festival. Since starting at Leila Davis, he has seen 12 of his students selected to perform in the Florida Music Education Association’s Elementary All-State Chorus.
The first of those students, Mitchell Scott Johnson, spoke earlier during the award show, introducing Martinez-Cooley as someone who has “transformed my life.” He joined the fourth-grade choir at Lelia Davis in the teacher’s first year there.
“He showed me how to be dedicated to accomplishing a goal, and how to develop a strong work ethic,” Johnson said, adding that, with Martinez-Cooley’s help, he went on to participate in four more All-State choirs before graduating from high school.
Backstage, after the announcement, Martinez-Cooley called the award an “absolute honor.” He pledged to challenge himself in the next year to be the best educator he can be — and to continue being a strong advocate for arts and music education.
His favorite part about teaching, he said, is helping kids understand things that might seem hard at first. His ultimate goal is to pass on his overwhelming love of music to kids who might grow to love it that much, too.
Martinez-Cooley arrived at school Thursday morning in a limousine and receive several prizes, including VIP tickets to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a $2,500 Nova Southeastern scholarship, an “outstanding educator” ring, cash and more. He will represent the school district at events and make appearances throughout Florida in the coming year.
Other finalists for Teacher of the Year included: Tina Angles of Ponce de Leon Elementary; Susana Carter of Elisa Nelson Elementary; Cheri Connolly of Anona Elementary; Staci DaSilva of 74th Street Elementary; Deborah Guinn of Osceola Fundamental High; Tracey Keim of St. Petersburg High; Dianna Mills of Bay Point Middle; Natasha Reed of Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle; and Ajori Spencer of Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8.
Also honored at the awards show were two “Emerging Teachers of the Year:" Courtney Titcomb, a first-grade teacher at Azalea Elementary, and Olivia Crawford, a language arts teacher at Largo Middle. The award is new this year and recognizes teachers in the first few years of the profession who have “demonstrated excellence through representation of the district’s core values," according to award criteria.
In comments leading up to the announcement, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego praised the work of teachers, calling them “change-makers.” He turned to the finalists to say they “epitomize the excellence” in the profession.
“My real superheroes are teachers," he said, “because it is within the classrooms of our teachers that dreams begin.”