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    Top-teacher selection taking new approach

    Educators want the Teacher of the Year program to be less troublesome to participate in and less of a competition. Now 100 teachers will be honored.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    Responding to concerns from teachers that the annual Teacher of the Year competition was difficult to enter and, well, too competitive, the Pinellas County School District is changing the program.

    Instead of honoring 20 semifinalists at a luncheon, the district will honor 100 teachers at a dinner that will be broadcast live on its television station.

    As in previous years, the list will be pared to one teacher who will represent Pinellas in regional and state competitions. But unlike previous years, that person won't be called the Teacher of the Year but an Outstanding Educator.

    "We don't want to disengage ourselves from the state program," said school district spokesman Ron Stone, who sat on the committee that reworked the program. "We're just not sure what they're trying to do at the state level aligns with what we're trying to do at the local level. We don't want this to be a contest. We want it to be a recognition."

    For years, participating in the competition has been seen as a hassle. Teachers who wanted to enter had to write seven, page-long essays explaining their qualifications. The list of nominees was quickly pared to just 20 semifinalists, and only a small group was honored.

    To some, it seemed like far too much of a bother. And to some, it seemed to be a popularity contest in a county in which teachers are encouraged to work together rather than compete with one another. Those attitudes have hurt the number of applications in recent years; only 49 applied last year.

    Rob McMahon, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, refused to be nominated when he was a science teacher at Bay Point Middle School. He thought it was "farcical" to name one teacher of 7,500 "the best."

    "I think they'll appreciate this as a move in the right direction," McMahon said. "This one-person-representing-all is the kind of a thing I say creates more problems than it does good things."

    Anete Vasquez, who was named Teacher of the Year in February 2000, was the only one in the English department at Palm Harbor University High School willing to be nominated that year. No one else, she said, wanted to jump through all of the hoops to participate.

    Making the annual event more inclusive will be an improvement, she said. The year she won, she said she was in "fine company" and didn't know how the judges could choose just one teacher to honor.

    "The more people they can honor, the better," Vasquez said. "Thanks from the community is really important."

    Under the new rules, the person making the nomination will answer questions about the teacher. The teacher will have to provide only a resume, so the process won't be as time-consuming.

    One hundred teachers will be invited to attend a gala dinner in Tropicana Field's center field in January. The Pinellas County Education Foundation will pay for each teacher to bring a guest, as well as provide gifts for the honored teachers. To do that, the foundation is planning to recruit as many as 30 or 40 corporate sponsors.

    The goal, said new education foundation president Terry Boehm, is to use the event to not only recognize more teachers but to show the community just how important good teaching is.

    "I prefer to look at the evening as celebrating the profession," Boehm said. "They're a lot of times the unsung heroes. Let's try to make a big deal out of this."

    The district will take nominations in five categories: creativity and innovation, commitment to children and families, ambassador of the profession, commitment to improvement of the profession and inspiring students to performance at higher levels.

    Students, parents, teachers, community members -- pretty much anyone -- may nominate a deserving instructor, including media and other specialists, counselors and therapists.

    The nomination forms are due by 4:30 p.m. Oct. 2 at the district administration building, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo. The forms are available at the district's Web site at www.pinellas.k12.fl.us or by calling 588-6297.

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