Sarah Ann Painter, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater is Florida’s Teacher of the Year, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran announced during a ceremony Thursday evening in Orlando.
Painter, 41, was one of five finalists, each of whom had been teacher of the year for their districts. She will receive $20,000 and, as is customary with winners of the annual recognition, she will spend the next year traveling the state and visiting schools on behalf of the Florida Department of Education.
It was the first time since 1978 that a Pinellas teacher had won the statewide honor, but the fourth time since 2010 that it went to a teacher from Tampa Bay.
Painter, an 18-year veteran of the Pinellas school district, thanked her husband, Leo, and their six children, “who have sacrificed alongside me for the greater good of the students.”
She also used the occasion at the sprawling Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel to put a brighter face on a just-finished 2020-21 school year that, for many educators and students, was a year to forget. Painter recalled it as a frustrating experience, often marked by technology failures as she tried to teach in-person and online students at the same time.
But at her students’ urging, she told the audience, her frequent groans turned into a determination to “find joy” instead.
“Instead of thinking about this year in terms of what COVID has taken away from us, let’s choose to look at it as what COVID has given us,” Painter said, reading from a paper she pulled from the pocket of her ballgown.
“For me,” she said, “it’s a better understanding of my district’s digital platform, a new way to connect with students and families, a new awareness of mental health, more time with family and friends, and a new perspective from which to teach from.”
Painter emerged as Pinellas County’s teacher of the year in January, one of 10 finalists. In her nominating letter for that contest, Eisenhower Elementary principal Antonette Wilson described Painter as a determined and energetic teacher who, in the 10-month span of a school year, reliably turns low-performing students into kids with good grades and more confidence.
She also works closely with parents, helps out with training at the district level and one year raised money on Facebook so all of her students could attend the end-of-year class trip to Epcot.
“Her passion, expectations and mindset moves these scholars to grow tremendously,” Wilson wrote. “There is no escaping Sarah Painter.”
Two years ago, Hillsborough County teacher Dakeyan Graham won Florida’s top teaching honor and later moved on to become a Department of Education official overseeing school choice programs. The award went to Hillsborough teachers Diane McKee in 2016 and Megan Marie Allen in 2010.
Pinellas has had statewide winners recently in other education categories. David Melnick, a food service manager, won top honors as Florida School-Related Employee of the Year in 2017. Cheryl A. Thomas, a Pinellas bus driver and training assistant, won that category in 2015.
Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.