20 teachers in running for best-of-the-best crown

They were named top teachers at their respective schools. On Saturday, one will be honored as the county's Teacher of the Year.

By PUALETTE LASH RITCHIE, Times Correspondent
Published January 31, 2008

Twenty Hernando County School District teachers have been selected as the 2007-08 Teachers of the Year at their schools.

On Saturday, the Hernando County Education Foundation will announce the Hernando County Teacher of the Year. Here are this year's honorees:

Brooksville Elementary School

PATRICIA A. GIBSON, 30, is a second-grade teacher in her fourth year at BES. She is in her eighth year teaching.

On becoming a teacher: "I am a teacher because I hope that with everything I do and all that I believe, I will challenge my students in a way that will make them become all they can be."

On what makes her smile: "When one of my students smiles at me, it becomes contagious and I smile back."

Central High School

DANIEL O'ROURKE, 38, has been an algebra teacher at Central High School and in the district for five years.

On becoming a teacher: "I came into the education field from the business world. I never imagined teaching would be as rewarding as it is. My wife has been an educator for 13 years and I would listen to her stories and wish my work could bring me the sense of significance that she was receiving from helping students learn. I finally got that opportunity five years ago."

On what makes him smile: "For me, teaching is a complete joy. I truly love working with students on a daily basis and seeing them grow as selfless, hard-working individuals."

Challenger K8 School

ANNE BRISTOL, 53, is a graphic arts sixth- and eighth-grade teacher at Challenger. She has been there for three years and has been a teacher for 16.

On becoming a teacher: "I teach because I love showing students how to bring beauty into their world. I love seeing students with average talent work hard, follow through, overcome their fears and ultimately end up with a piece of art that totally takes their breath away."

On what makes her smile: "Children! I love it when they come in with doubts and insecurities about their level of talent and leave feeling like superstars."

Chocachatti Elementary School

JODI MILLS, 40, teaches kindergarten. This is her ninth year at Chocachatti and her 17th year as a teacher.

On becoming a teacher: "Because it is the most fulfilling career, to have an impact on our future by shaping the children of today."

On what makes her smile: "That moment when a child has realized that he/she can read and you see the pride in accomplishment on their face. Additionally, you can't help but smile everyday when you are greeted every morning with hugs and smiles."

Deltona Elementary School

DONNY WEED, 36, is a kindergarten-fifth grade science resource teacher. He has been at Deltona for eight years and has been teaching for 11 years.

On becoming a teacher: "My mom is an amazing teacher! ...She said, 'Every day is different. Nothing is ever the same in teaching. I get to help make a difference.' From that day forward I knew I wanted to be a teacher."

On what makes him smile: "The students often say, 'That was the best thing I've done at school.' Those are the moments that make me smile, because that day I made a difference in the lives of those students."

D.S. Parrott Middle School

CHERYL E. GROWE, 32, teaches seventh-grade reading. She's in her fourth year at Parrott, in the district and as a teacher.

On becoming a teacher:"After many years of working in restaurants, I was interested in pursuing a career that would offer more family opportunities and would meet some of my long-range goals. ... My mother suggested that I become certified to teach. ...I followed her suggestion and agreed to give it a try. Thank goodness! I LOVE it!"

On what makes her smile: "The kids, of course. They are great! I think I am fortunate to have some of the best kids ever pass through my classes. They constantly provide amusement and entertainment.

Eastside Elementary School

HEATHER L. McCARTY, 40, teaches third- through fifth-grade writing. She has been at Eastside for five years, in the district for six years and in education for 12 years.

On becoming a teacher: "My father had been a teacher at a Catholic school in Connecticut. I was surrounded by books and I was captivated with my dad's humorous stories and tidbits about his classroom."

On what makes her smile: “Motivating students is what brings me the greatest joy. It is my trademark at Eastside to come up with an annual challenge for my writing students. I've dyed my hair hot pink, worn pajamas to school, eaten a "Fear Factor" breakfast and even was a student for a day. These zany challenges, along with motivating students each day, are the things that I am most passionate about."

Fox Chapel Middle School

NATALIE DURRUM, 27, teaches eighth-grade language arts. She has been at Fox Chapel for four years and has been a teacher for five years.

On becoming a teacher: "I am a teacher because I know I can make a positive difference in children's lives. There are so few jobs in this world that can be done for the good of humanity. Teaching is one of them."

On what makes her smile: "Seeing my kids make responsible choices; seeing my kids mess up and learn from their mistakes or failures; being able to laugh with my kids about anything."

F.W. Springstead High School

WENDY NUGENT, 52, teaches ninth- through 12th-grade reading. She has been at the school for eight years. She has been in the district for 19 years and a teacher for 25 years.

On becoming a teacher: "When you teach, you touch the lives of many students and teachers in a positive way. You have the opportunity to help them meet 'success' in reading by working as a team with the student, being a good role model and always showing them the positive. They can improve!"

On what makes her smile: "When I see a student with a positive attitude. When I see a student turn around and believe they can reach their goals and dreams."

Hernando High School

MIKE BAINUM, 45, is in his fourth year teaching culinary operations. He has been in the district and teaching for four years.

On becoming a teacher: "I just love being with kids." He says he appreciates the opportunity to start fresh each August, improving on the previous year.

On what makes him smile: "Coming from the restaurant background, I stand and greet the students when they come in. What makes me smile is when I get distracted and the student says it first. It's like a game, who'll say good morning or good afternoon first."

J.D. Floyd K-8 Environmental Center

ADAM WOLFORD, 25, teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science and an integrated science technology lab. He has been at J.D. Floyd and a teacher for four years.

On becoming a teacher: "It is the most rewarding experience life has to offer. It is instant gratification. Most jobs you wait months for a promotion or a raise and that's mostly all there is to it. As a teacher I get rewarded every day through the progress of my kids."

On what makes him smile: "Watching them test their boundaries the same way I did when I was a kid always puts a smile on my face. I also enjoy watching them develop as young adults and go out of their way to help and comfort each other."

Moton Elementary School

OONAGH GUENKEL, 52, is an exceptional student education teacher. She has been at Moton, in the district and a teacher for seven years.

On becoming a teacher: "I am not a teacher simply because I care about children. I am a teacher because I am a well-trained, highly qualified professional who teaches children I care about."

On what makes her smile: When a child smiles, I become their mirror. When I smile, they become mine."

Nature Coast Technical High School

SHARON ELLIOTT, 37, is in her fifth year at the school. She is a math and algebra teacher. She has been with the district and has been a teacher for 15 years.

On becoming a teacher: "I can't ever remember not wanting to be a teacher. I had such wonderful teachers. I had a great school experience. There's nothing else I would enjoy doing."

On what makes her smile: "I think what makes me smile is when students realize that they have the confidence to do well in mathematics."

Pine Grove Elementary School

JOSEPHINE MAHER is a second-grade teacher at her school and in the district in her fourth year.

On becoming a teacher: "My favorite thing about teaching is what I call my "Star Philosophy." Before school begins I send out a postcard which reads, 'Congratulations, you are a star!' ...They begin to believe they are stars, gaining confidence. I reinforce this concept all year long. Their self-esteem soars."

On what makes her smile: "When I am reading my students' journals and they mention how much they love school and learning. When I hear my students encouraging each other. ... When prior year students come visit me still thinking they are stars. "

Powell Middle School

CHRISTINA SMART, 29, is a fourth-year eighth-grade American history teacher. She has been a teacher for four years.

On becoming a teacher: "My desire to become a teacher came after I volunteered in an elementary classroom in high school. I specifically chose middle school history because I don't remember being moved or inspired by history at that age."

On what makes her smile: "Whether it is a 'good morning' or a 'guess what, Ms. Smart!?' It makes me happy that they are as excited to see me as I am to welcome them into my classroom each day."

Spring Hill Elementary School

HEATHER BASS, 35 is in her fourth year as a teacher, in the district and at Spring Hill. She teaches fifth grade.

On becoming a teacher: "I became a teacher because when I would create lessons for my kids in the summer, I decided I could help other people's kids with their learning and I love it."

On what makes her smile: "When I'm teaching something and if they look at me and I see they don't get it and I change my strategy and they smile, I know they got it."

Star Education Center

VINCE La BORANTE, 47, is an exceptional student education teacher and the school's exceptional student education coordinator. He serves students in grades 7-11. This is his first year at Star, but he has been with the district for 19 years and an educator for 20 years.

On becoming a teacher: "Teaching was not my first career but, like many others, I was drawn to the profession and, once bitten, it is now my passion. My whole teaching career has been working with "at-risk" and special-needs students. "

On what makes him smile: "Seeing the lightbulb going off over a struggling student when they achieve academic success makes me smile."

Suncoast Elementary School

KRISTEN M. CAMERON, 26, is a third-grade teacher. She has been at the school, in the district and in teaching for five years.

On becoming a teacher: "I wanted to be greeted with a hug, a handshake or a high-five on a daily basis. I wanted to share my thoughts and ideas with a group of eager listeners who would appreciate me. I wanted to make a difference every day and have a sense of worth. Then it came to me: I wanted to be a teacher."

On what makes her smile: "In my classroom, it's the struggling reader who finishes their toughest book that makes me smile. ... The pictures that the students draw when they think you aren't looking, declaring you are the best teacher in the world, are what make me smile."

West Hernando Middle School

LESLIE PARKER, 53, is an eighth-grade physical science teacher. She has been at the school and district for four years. She has been a teacher for 12.

On becoming a teacher: "Scientists observe our physical world and develop theories to explain what they see. I enjoy engaging my students in activities that test a theory. ...Teaching offers me the challenges to encourage, enable, and open young minds."

On what makes her smile: "I smile when I see an expression of surprise on a student's face when something finally makes sense."

Westside Elementary School

HELEN SHEPARD, 39, is a single-gender (boys) third-grade teacher. She is in her seventh year at Westside. She has been in the district for 12 years, five years as a substitute teacher.

On becoming a teacher: "I am a teacher today because of a teacher I had in elementary school, Mrs. Crumb. She instilled a love for learning in me. "

On what makes her smile: "Teaching all boys is definitely a high-energy environment where the natural curiosity of boys comes alive. ... When I am teaching a concept and a student makes a connection to a new discovery. It is evident through the light in their eyes, that the natural curiosity has been inspired to direct their learning."