CLEARWATER — The fifth-graders in Sarah Painter’s Eisenhower Elementary School class let out an audible gasp as they watched the adults armed with balloons and posters stream into their classroom.
They didn’t know what the group wanted. But their class has a philosophy when confronted by a challenge: Find joy.
That’s exactly what they did when Jacob Oliva, the state’s public schools chancellor, made his big reveal that Painter is one of five finalists for 2022 Florida teacher of the year.
“We’re going around the state to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, and we hear you’ve got a pretty terrific teacher. Is that right?” Oliva told the children, who cheered loudly in agreement.
Painter blushed and became emotional at the news. She admitted to having cleaned up her classroom ahead of time, though she said it was because someone told her a photographer would be stopping by to take pictures of new furniture.
“I am so, so honored,” Painter said after receiving her balloon bouquet from State Board of Education chairman Andy Tuck. “To be validated, honored and called out for a year we’ve had no rule book for means the world to me.”
Painter is Pinellas County’s third state finalist in the past decade. The others were Kevin Ford of Tarpon Springs High in 2015 and Vanessa Ko of Palm Harbor Middle in 2018.
Her students said she’s deserving of the recognition.
“She is an amazing teacher, and she is so inspiring,” said Isabella Ramos, 10. “The fact that she’s doing simultaneous is a really hard thing to do. ... She deals with it.”
Alexandria Bowerman, 11, said Painter makes class entertaining even when it’s difficult, and finds ways to reach students’ needs no matter what.
“She helps you find joy for subjects you don’t like,” added Anthony Hinton, 11. “I didn’t like reading and writing. She made it one of my favorites.”
Eisenhower principal Antonette Wilson said Painter’s ability to reach children and their families is key to her success. Painter views education as a partnership, Wilson said, and takes whatever steps are necessary to ensure the connections between home and school.
She’s passionate about the job, Wilson added, and always looks for ways to make things better.
“She’s one of those teachers every principal would love to have in their building,” Wilson said.
Painter, an 18-year Pinellas County teacher in her 13th year at Eisenhower, said she never thought about another career.
“I’m good at it. I long for it,” the mom of six said. “I find my joy in being around (the students). The rewards they give me are far more than anything I could give them.”
The other finalists are from Sarasota, Duval, Volusia and Sumter counties. The winner will be announced during the summer.
Painter is the second Tampa Bay area educator to receive statewide recognition this week.
On Wednesday, the Department of Education named Hillsborough County’s Zemenaye Belda Harris as Florida’s assistant principal of the year. Harris, 38, works at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in East Tampa. She joined the Hillsborough school district in 2008.