His life's calling fulfilled

The coach and car enthusiast got his dream job at Burns Middle after an Air Force career.

Published February 2, 2007

TAMPA - When the spotlight came on James Gibbs III, Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year, he knew where to start. Always thank the teachers.

His list was long. The instructor in fourth grade who was the first male influence in his education career. The daughter he considers his hero. His Lord. The military family that enabled him to reach the classroom.

"I'm nobody special," said Gibbs, an eighth-grade math teacher at Burns Middle School in Brandon. "I'm just a humble servant who's not afraid to teach old school values with new school techniques."

If applause was an indicator, the teacher was something very special to the crowd of 1,600 gathered Thursday night at the awards ceremony organized by the Hillsborough Education Foundation.

To Gibbs, 48, teaching is "God's calling." He always knew he'd end up in a classroom. He just chose a long road to get there.

He toured the globe as an Air Force Intelligence Officer. In 2002, he retired after 24 years of service. The military allowed him to pay off his mortgage. His family is taken care of.

Gibbs works for fun. And middle school is his dream job.

"They're little miniature adults who just need us to push them along to find the right path," Gibbs said. "They are changing from minute to minute. You can see it in their eyes."

Burns administrators noted the sign hanging outside Gibbs' classroom. It reads "opportunity knocks." When students need the reminder, he asks them to step outside and knock to re-enter.

Emily Shepherd, 15, recalled how Gibbs breathed life into math by incorporating student hobbies into test questions. His lessons went beyond Algebra I. He helped her resolve a fight with a friend, reminding them of greater tragedies.

"Mr. Gibbs is a phenomenal person and even better teacher," she said. "He was there for me and every individual kid in his class."

When he applied for jobs as a nontraditional teacher, Gibbs said Burns' principal was the only one who would take a chance on him. But Principal Brenda Nolte said it wasn't a gamble.

"He's very proactive about knowing what he wants to do and gets it done," Nolte said. "And the high energy. You need that with the middle school people."

As a teacher, Gibbs is known for never sitting still. He's a grade-level team leader. He coaches track and girls softball.

He's also the adult who allows a group of adolescents to run an annual car show.

Gibbs, the sponsor of the Burns Motorsports Club, is a Harley-Davidson man. At home sit a Fat Boy Custom, a 1975 Chevy Camaro and a 2001 Chevy S10.

Now he can add a Lexus to the driveway. As Teacher of the Year, Gibbs gets a one-year lease, courtesy of Lexus of Tampa Bay.

His prize basket also comes with the traditional limo ride to school, a cruise to the Bahamas, $1,500 cash, a Teacher of the Year ring, a classroom grant, and scholarships from the University of South Florida and Nova Southeastern University.

"I'm flat-out overwhelmed," Gibbs said after the announcement, blinking off the glare of television cameras. To his side was the shimmering 2007 Lexus.

"The prizes don't mean anything to me," he said. "My reward's in the classroom."

Gibbs will represent Hillsborough in the state Teacher of the Year competition. He was selected out of 217 teachers nominated across Hillsborough.

The other finalists were Darlene Baker of Gorrie Elementary, Calvin Dillon of Gaither High, Vicki Ewing of Burnett Middle, Jacqueline Hanlin of McKitrick Elementary, Barbara Miraglia of Giunta Middle, Lucille Sharpe of Cypress Creek Elementary, Tamara Steele of Carrollwood Elementary, Renee Stembridge of Chiles Elementary and Jacqueline Williams of Brandon High.

Fast Facts:


Teacher of the Year

James Gibbs III

School: Burns Middle School

Class: Eighth-grade math

Education: Bachelor's in business from the State University of New York at Albany. Master's in public administration from Florida International University.

Hobby: Cool rides. His collection includes a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy Custom, a 1975 Chevy Camaro and a 2001 Chevy S10.

Family: Wife, three daughters, three granddaughters