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Top teacher honors at Eisenhower Elementary and Caminiti Exceptional Center

A pair of unusual ceremonies recognized work in an unprecedented year for Hillsborough and Pinellas schools.
Laura Meehan, left, and Sarah Painter were honored Thursday as Teachers of the Year for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, respectively.
Laura Meehan, left, and Sarah Painter were honored Thursday as Teachers of the Year for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, respectively. [ Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts ]
Published Jan. 22
Updated Jan. 22

In a school year that posed challenges like no other, was it even possible to single out a Teacher of the Year?

Should the award go to Amanda Palmer, a teacher at Hunter’s Green Elementary School who made her Zoom meetings “full-out singing sessions” so students would remember their math concepts?

How about MacFarlane Park Elementary’s Katie Stallings? She sent her students cardboard cutouts in her likeness “so they could take me on adventures and write letters of all the things Flat Mrs. Stallings did with them.”

Related: Meet this year’s top teachers in Hillsborough, Pinellas

Judges in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties had to choose among hundreds whose dedication and ingenuity were strained to new limits when the coronavirus pandemic closed the schools for three months, then reopened them with severe restrictions.

Pinellas found its 2021 Teacher of the Year in Sarah Painter, 41, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater.

“I want my students to set high goals for themselves, to be self motivated,” the 18-year teacher said in a video interview. She said she is motivated by “the legacy I’m leaving behind for my children, my students and the families that I work with. It’s motivating to know that I’m changing lives.”

In Hillsborough, the honor went to Laura Meehan, 31, a music specialist at Caminiti Exceptional Center, which serves some of the district’s most severely challenged students.

In the early days of the spring shutdown, Meehan told contest judges in her essay, “I’ll admit, I panicked.”

She created a website, interactive videos and online worksheets. She hosted a virtual prom from her living room. “We had balloons, decorations, a killer play list, special guests and more,” she wrote.

Meehan and Painter received the coveted awards at virtual events that happened simultaneously, replacing the gala celebrations that happened faithfully in non-pandemic years.

Hillsborough based its event at Blake High School, with various rooms on Zoom so the finalists’ supporters could mingle virtually.

In Pinellas, the 10 finalists watched with their families and friends in scattered locations, some at their schools and others in their homes.

Superintendent Mike Grego, knowing the winner in advance, was based at Eisenhower, using banners to keep the location a secret. After the big reveal, he was able to burst into the school’s all-purpose room as Painter cried out, “I won!” Then, “I won! Yes I did!”

In Hillsborough, Meehan told the audience that “every teacher deserves to be Teacher of the Year this year — this year of all years.”

Hillsborough also named its Ida S. Baker diversity educator of the year: Chardae Duffy, the media specialist at Woodson K-8 School in north Tampa. And Michael Helton, the student nutrition manager at Dawson Elementary, was named support employee of the year.

Chardae Duffy is the media specialist at Woodson K-8 School in Tampa.
Chardae Duffy is the media specialist at Woodson K-8 School in Tampa. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

Among her accomplishments Duffy, 32, developed “Boys, Books and Barbers,” a community-based outreach effort that has more than 15 barbershops engaging their young clients with culturally relevant texts when they come in for haircuts.

Duffy said she also took a hard look at her school’s library collection when she arrived, working to remove books that promoted stereotypes and replacing them with materials that better reflected the diversity of her student body.

Michael Helton is food services manager at Dawson Elementary School in Hillsborough County.
Michael Helton is food services manager at Dawson Elementary School in Hillsborough County. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

Helton, 51, takes pains to staff his kitchen with workers who enjoy children. He supervises breakfast in the school’s outdoor courtyard, with music playing. His location was among the busiest when the schools were de facto food banks for their communities, handing out a week’s worth of breakfast and lunch staples at a time.

One day, they prepared 700 packages, then another 265 when surrounding schools ran out.

Recalling those months on Thursday, he said, “we fed thousands of families.”