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  1. Education

Teacher of the Year prefers to open doors, not stand behind closed ones

HUDSON — The dust had barely settled on the Friday night accolades, but it was back to business Monday morning for Hudson High School language arts teacher Beth Hess.

On the lesson plan was some necessary instruction about the upcoming Florida Standards assessment test that students will be taking for the first time in March. Time was slotted for dissecting sentences, meant to strengthen students' writing skills. And there would be some deep delving into a couple of novels — Anthem for the sophomores and To Kill a Mockingbird for the freshmen.

But first came a round of applause from the students, who had learned that their teacher had been named Pasco County Teacher of the Year.

It's a well-deserved honor, according to Shelby Riggs, 15; Justin Torres, 15, and Dylan Connell, 16.

"I love how she's always so positive," Riggs said of Hess. "She pushes us to do our best, but not so we're at the point of tears. She explains everything and makes sure everybody is on the right track."

"She's the type of teacher that makes a positive influence on her students," said Torres, noting that he came under Hess' wing when he was having behavior issues last school year in another teacher's classroom. "She considers us like one of her kids. She's there for us, whether it's something at school or home."

"She's one of the best teachers I've ever had," Connell said. "She's lively in class. She interacts with us. She brings in outside resources that help us relate. She allows us to go deep into whatever we're reading — makes us think hard. She really brings out the full potential in all of us."

As an educator, Hess draws on her experience, which includes 14 years of teaching in nine schools in three states, 12 years managing three design companies as a semi stay-at-home mom, plus the success and adversity she has encountered along the way.

That's a pretty good teaching brew, especially when it comes to reaching students in a 43-year-old Title 1 school that can be lacking in state-of-the-art technology and where a majority of the students qualify for the federally funded free and reduced-price lunch program.

"When kids ask me, 'Why do I need to know this?' I have real-life experience to show them why," Hess said. "I had such a richer perspective that I was able to bring into my classroom. It was a blessing."

Hess was born in Tennessee, but she considers Georgia her home. She attended Jacksonville State University in Alabama, first studying law before following her father into education.

She was fresh out of college when she was hired to develop and teach a secondary gifted program in Calhoun County, Ala.

"It was an amazing, imaginative first year. I had nothing in place to go by," she said.

She looked for opportunities.

"The kids went on a biology trip. They went on an archaeology dig; saw an autopsy," she said. "That first year has pretty much set the precedence. I've always taught like that — trying to open doors instead of standing behind shut ones."

That attitude got the attention of the Hudson High teachers who nominated Hess for Teacher of the Year and administrators, including principal David LaRoche.

"She is fantastic," LaRoche said. "She has only been here three years, but she has already had quite an impact on the student body and staff. She has great leadership skills, and I think she has a knack for engaging the kids. She's one of the best teachers you'll ever find."

Along with teaching English, Hess was tapped to serve as a support teacher and mentor for her peers during the implementation of the new Florida Standards.

Hess helped conduct a statewide conference in Daytona Beach that focused on the transition to the Florida Standards, which she hopes will empower teachers as well as students.

"I really back Florida Standards/Common Core, and I have been implementing it in my classroom no matter what it's called," Hess said, adding that she expects some bumps and some "tough testing results" in the first year. "I really do believe that we are in that transition period where it is still kind of painful, and we're going to be there for a while because it takes awhile for that to blow forward. But the work that my students are doing as a result is amazing.

"Some of these kids have never been out of Florida, so my job is to respectfully open the world to them so they can discover the things they might never have been able to see because of the limitations of their circumstances," she said. "They need to know that education is the key. Economically they might not have these opportunities. But through their education, they have no limits. It's all about the kids finding and discovering these paths for themselves and just soaring out."

Michele Miller can be reached at mmiller@tampabay.com or at (727) 869-6251. Follow @mimichele525.

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