Honored to be well-understood

Published February 17, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - Tom Adams leaned over the advanced math book to look at the trigonometry problem that troubled senior Lauren Taylor.

Then in through the door walked Adeline Brill, a fellow Wesley Chapel High School teacher, with a hug and a hearty, "Congratulations. You deserve it."

Brill turned to Taylor, who looked somewhat puzzled, and explained that Adams had been named the county's Teacher of the Year the night before. "You're looking at a very famous person," she said.

To which Taylor responded, "He should be."

Adams gets that kind of respect from his students in no small part because he does more than just teach them. He reaches them.

"The way he teaches, everybody really understands," said senior Rodney Harden, a member of Adams' first period geometry class. "I don't like it when a person gives notes and just gives us problems and makes us solve it. He actually gets into it. He actually helps us."

His colleagues see it, too. English teacher Lori Savoy, who also stopped by with a hug and kind words, described Adams as a teacher any kid would be lucky to have.

"He is patient. He is kind. He knows his stuff. And the kids love him," Savoy said.

Adams demurred the praise. Shortly after winning the honor late Thursday, he voiced hope for a low-key Friday morning.

He got it, partly because the school didn't learn until close to 10 p.m. that he won, and partly out of respect for two other staffers whose family members had been involved in a fatal shootout overnight.

Mostly, Adams simply doesn't have a huge ego that needs stoking. Asked why he deserves recognition over the thousands of other Pasco County teachers, he replied: "I don't."

"There's a lot of people putting in a lot of time for our kids," said Adams, 41, who came to teaching in 1996 after a career in software design. "I'm just one piece of the big puzzle."

Born in Springfield, Ill., Adams grew up with a goal shared by many other Midwesterners, to move somewhere warmer. After college, he got a job with General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas. When the winter seemed like St. Louis without the snow, he gave his name to a headhunter and gave one direction - farther south.

His next job brought him to St. Petersburg, with the now merged E Systems. But Adams soon found he was working "gobs of hours" and didn't feel all that successful.

"So I thought back to what a professor told me," Adams said. "She made a comment, 'You would be an excellent teacher.' "

He entered an alternative certification program, went back to school and came out a math teacher. His first job was at Thomas E. Weightman Middle School. Wesley Chapel High School principal Andrew Frelick worked with Adams at Weightman and gladly brought him to the neighboring high school when it opened.

"He's just an awesome all-around person and teacher, an advocate for kids," Frelick said. "Kids of all levels work well in his classroom. He goes above and beyond helping students."

Between work - Adams also served as the school's athletic director for a while - and his service in the Coast Guard Reserve, Adams often found himself with little time for family. His position took him to Guantanamo, the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina.

"Somebody has got to do it," he explained. "I feel like I have an obligation."

Now he's seeking more family time. Adams keeps a hectic schedule, and remains on call, but he's trying to be the best "part-time full-time parent" to 10-year-old Zakary and 5-year-old Emilee that he can be.

Nights are for his kids' soccer practices, Boy Scout meetings, and religion lessons at church.

During the day, Adams still strives to be the best teacher he can be.

"I still have a passion for the classroom," said Adams, whose wife, Terri, is a teacher in Hillsborough County. "As long as I have that, I am going to stay in the classroom."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. Check out our education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.