Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. The Education Gradebook

Armwood High educator named Hillsborough Teacher of the Year

Biology teacher Laura Widerberg is known as an innovator. Awards also go to top diversity educator, support employee.
Winners of the 2022 Excellence in Education awards for Hillsborough County. From left: Temple Terrace Elementary parent liaison aide Faith Smith, support employee of the year; Armwood High biology teacher Laura Widerberg, Teacher of the Year; Shields Middle School success coach Benigno Lopez, Diversity Educator of the Year.
Winners of the 2022 Excellence in Education awards for Hillsborough County. From left: Temple Terrace Elementary parent liaison aide Faith Smith, support employee of the year; Armwood High biology teacher Laura Widerberg, Teacher of the Year; Shields Middle School success coach Benigno Lopez, Diversity Educator of the Year. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]
Published Jan. 21|Updated Jan. 21

An Armwood High School biology teacher became Hillsborough’s Teacher of the Year on Thursday, edging out four colleagues from elementary schools for the coveted honor.

Laura Widerberg, 48, has worked for the school district for 16 years and at Armwood for five. She has led teacher training sessions as her school’s science department chair; and worked with Florida State University and the Florida Department of Education to study and develop training methods.

She is also an innovator in her classroom. She designed an end-of-course exam study guide, modeled on the Advanced Placement study guides sold in stores. She introduced games and devices to help students stay motivated in their work.

“Who doesn’t love a button that makes noise and lights up?” she wrote on her candidate question form. “As students enter my room, they can hit one of three buttons to show me their goal for the class today. As they earn their tickets and place them in their period’s box, they can press another special button letting everyone know how awesome they are!”

Related: Five compete to be Hillsborough's top educator

Widerberg’s win was announced at the annual Excellence in Education awards ceremony at the David A. Straz Performing Arts Center.

Benigno Lopez, 53, a success coach at Shields Middle School, was named Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year. Faith Smith, 51, a parent liaison aide at Temple Terrace Elementary, was recognized as support employee of the year.

The evening event marked a return to the customary venue after the district went to a virtual format in 2021 because of COVID-19. Although the omicron variant has yielded record-high case counts this month among students and staff, organizers said they felt safe in going ahead with the event, as participation was voluntary and there were safety modifications.

Among them: Guests were required to show a vaccine card, or a recent negative COVID-19 test result. They were spread out in larger spaces than usual. Masks were required except when they were eating or drinking. And this year, there was no after-party. About 900 people were expected to attend the event, according to the Hillsborough Education Foundation.

The Pinellas district, similarly, will return its Teacher of the Year event to St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday. Pinellas will provide a livestream option; Hillsborough did not.

Widerberg can now continue to the statewide teaching competition. She follows Caminiti Exceptional Center adaptive musical specialist Laura Meehan, who was Hillsborough’s top teacher in 2021.

Widerberg’s responses to the question form revealed both sophistication in teacher leadership and professional development as well as an appreciation for the personal challenges her students have faced, particularly in the last two years.

“There is something to be said for seeing someone’s facial expressions,” she wrote. “The mask seemed to give students permission to hide and to feel unseen, I try every day to use students’ names and to make them feel noticed and that their words and thoughts are important through building classroom culture.”

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

That work includes seeking students’ input in establishing classroom routines. “I feel it is important to know that this is OUR learning environment and that they too are in control of it,” she wrote.

In a school where 72 percent of the students are from low-income families, it also means knowing if a student is hungry, needs school supplies, or if the family is in distress. Widerberg recalled a day when she drove to 10 homes to drop off learning materials for students who did not have computers or internet service. She tutors at lunch time. She assisted in developing a credit recovery option so students could make up work they had missed, giving them a better shot at completing their requirements for graduation.

Widerberg believes in the power of a quick text to parents, to share a small victory. In class, she looks for ways to lead an activity before teaching a concept. “This provides relevancy and levels the playing field for all students, closing the achievement gap,” she wrote. “Everyone now has gained prior knowledge.”

Looking back to the beginning of her career, “I was a sponge — always wanting to learn new strategies,” she wrote.

“And I’m still this way over 21 years later.”

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge