Pinellas Teacher of the Year called ‘a once-in-a-lifetime educator’

Adam Zele is a math teacher at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg.
Adam Zele is crowned as Pinellas Teacher of the Year to applause and cheers.
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 9

Adam Zele’s principal at Azalea Middle School called the eighth-year math teacher the definition of inspiration for educators.

“He works tirelessly, often the last car in the parking lot when I leave at 8 p.m., creating engaging, memorable lessons,” principal Susan Alvaro wrote in recommending Zele to be Pinellas County’s Teacher of the Year. “Adam Zele pours himself into the learning of his students and it shows.”

The Pinellas Education Foundation recognized his excellence Wednesday evening, naming Zele the winner of the annual teaching award during a celebration at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. He now is eligible to compete for the statewide honor.

Azalea Middle School math teacher Adam Zele, right, reacts with his former student Julia Mara, who now attends St. Petersburg High, as he is crowned the 2022-23 Pinellas County Schools Teacher of the Year.
Azalea Middle School math teacher Adam Zele, right, reacts with his former student Julia Mara, who now attends St. Petersburg High, as he is crowned the 2022-23 Pinellas County Schools Teacher of the Year. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

On Thursday morning, he received the traditional limousine ride to the St. Petersburg school, where students and colleagues cheered his arrival.

Speaking to the Mahaffey audience, Zele said he was shocked to receive the honor, “especially because I know there are so many other incredible teachers in this room.”

He invited some of his students to the stage to share the recognition, saying “They’re the reason I’m a good teacher.”

Zele said in his application that being a classroom educator gives him the opportunity to mentor, teach and guide.

“I love being a middle school teacher at Azalea where every day I am making a difference for good in the lives of my students by helping them discover a passion for learning and discovery,” wrote Zele, who arrived at teaching after trying other professions, including entrepreneur, financial consultant and church pastor.

The district featured Zele three months ago on its website as an inspiring teacher who has the “IT Factor.” In that 90-second video, Zele said he discovered he enjoys working with the students in an atmosphere that’s different every day.

“I love when a student suddenly discovers something new, or something in math that hasn’t made sense suddenly makes sense. And you just see that sense of excitement when they get it,” he said. “I hope on a basic level I’m showing that math can be fun.”

Beyond that, he added, he hopes that he is teaching his students life skills and how to make good decisions. That means building strong relationships with the students, so he can know and understand their needs. He called that effort the biggest privilege he’s had in life.

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In addition to teaching pre-algebra, algebra and geometry courses, Zele sponsors students for the Take Stock in Children program. He invites new Azalea Middle teachers to lunch before they begin working so that they can have a familiar face on campus. He’s also the school math department chairperson.

“Adam Zele is a once-in-a-lifetime educator who puts forth boundless effort to ensure that he is meeting the needs of students, families and school community members,” principal Alvaro wrote. “He has truly been an inspirational teacher that I have had the pleasure of working with.”

One of Zele’s former students, Julia Mara, introduced him at the event. She called him a “math nerd” who shows students not only that math is fun, but also that he cares about them and realizes they are people before they are students.

“He has transformed my life as more than a teacher,” said Mara, now a student at St. Petersburg High.

Zele has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, and a master’s degree in divinity and doctorate in history and religion from Duke University.

The nine other finalists for the award were:

  • Rebecca Byrne, a first-grade teacher at Azalea Elementary
  • Jerry Cantrell, a science teacher at Seminole High
  • Amber Holmes, a third-grade teacher at Melrose Elementary
  • Dana Ingebresten, a science teacher at Boca Ciega High
  • Rachel Mita, a physical education teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary
  • Jaclyn Reyes, a library media technology specialist at Cypress Woods Elementary
  • Shelli Sorensen, a science teacher at Osceola Middle
  • Nicole Szydlowski, an English language arts teacher at Seminole Middle
  • Courtney Thompson, an ESE teacher at Nina Harris ESE Center.

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