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Teacher of the Year finalists are a class act

TAMPA - They range in age from their 20s to 50. Some teach common subjects such as math or English. Others dabble in unique fields, such as how to build video games. For still others, music was the path to their classroom. Out of nearly 15,000 teachers in the county, seven were named finalists recently for the top teacher award from the nonprofit Hillsborough Education Foundation. The winner will be named Thursday night. Here is a look at the best of the best, according to the foundation:
Kyla Bailey is just 28 and has been a teacher for five years, working now at Lanier Elementary in South Tampa. “My musical experience in school was not a high-quality one,” Bailey says. “I had a desire to enrich the lives of my students by introducing them to music from around the world around them and giving them opportunities to excel in ways they never thought possible.” One moment her students are warming up with vocal exercises. A few minutes later, she is teaching them how to play guitar. “I think she’s great. I’ve learned a lot from her,” fourth-grader Amy Tran said. “She makes everything very fun.” Bailey directs four different performance groups with about 200 students total, in addition to teaching all students music for 30 minutes twice a week. “I have the unique opportunity to see the same students every year,” Bailey says. “I have seen them grow a little more in each grade level.” Renee Poston, assistant principal at Lanier, lauded Bailey’s ability to reach out to other schools and to her students. “She has a wonderful rapport with her students. They love to go to her class,” Poston says. “She’s not just teaching a boring music program. They are engaged.” Like Bailey, Dakeyan “Dre” Graham is young and dedicated to music. He graduated from King High in 2003 and now is the band and orchestra director at the school whose hallways he once roamed as a student. “The first time I met him, I thought he was one of the kids,” Principal Michael Rowan said. Graham brings an infectious enthusiasm to the job because he used to march in the band he now leads. “He has that vested interest,” Rowan says. “He takes it a step further because he believes in the program and gets kids to buy in.” He’s 28 and has been a teacher for four years. He said he got into the field so he could give back to the next generation the same way that his teachers did for him. Graham, too, gets to watch many of the same students in his classes from year to year. He says he enjoys seeing them mature over their four years at King, being able to make informed decisions without having to consult an adult. Students at King are fans of the young teacher. “He’s an amazing teacher,” freshman Nicholas McCoy says. Kathy Hill teaches second grade at Mitchell Elementary, where she has been named top teacher on two occasions. She has taught for 14 years and is a third-generation educator. Her mom, sister, aunt and grandmother were or are teachers. “It’s not what I do, it’s who I am,” says Hill, 39. “I love teaching as much today as I did from day one. I am so blessed to be able to go to work every day and love what I do.” “The vision that she has for every student is incredible,” says Debbie Anderson, the assistant principal at Mitchell. “She knows where they are and she gets them to where they need to be.” She strives to reach out to special-needs students and works with exceptional student education in a co-teaching model. Hill says it is important to make sure every child has his or her educational needs met. That may mean more planning and more time spent outside school to make sure that happens. “It takes more time, but it’s worth it,” Hill says. “She truly lives her teaching life,” Anderson says. “She doesn’t go anywhere without thinking about what she can do to better her students or to teach them. She is constantly thinking about what she can do to move them further.” Cassie Mattison, who has a number of teachers in her family, doesn’t restrict herself to just teaching English at Spoto High. She’s the department head and also the writing coach. She sponsors student government and used to sponsor the Relay for Life event. She does mock exams Saturdays to help students in advanced placement classes. “She is one of those special educators who will do anything for kids,” says Principal Phillip Carr. “She will take it on if it will help students.” Mattison, 31, doesn’t deny that. “I am convinced there is always more that I can do,” says the veteran of nine years. “Another project to take on, another position I can add, another student I can mentor, another teacher I can instructionally coach.” Carr knew Mattison from when he worked at King High, where she attended school. “She was one of those students you knew was going to be successful,” he says. “Kids love her, they absolutely love her because they sense she genuinely cares about them. And she finds it difficult to say no.” So does Brian Nanns, according to those who know him at Williams Middle Magnet School. “When he first started with us, I was his mentor. I was always impressed with him,” says Lynn Calhoun, the technology resource teacher there. “He is very good and caught on very quickly. He tackled things that new teachers normally wouldn’t tackle.” He does the school’s website. He produces the morning show. He’s a coach at the school. He’s the leader of the Future Business Leaders of America, which went from 18 students in 2009 to 236 students this year. “What do you not do, Mr. Nanns?” Calhoun asks with a laugh. “He truly is, or should be, the teacher of the year.” Nanns has been teaching four years at Williams. He teaches computer applications in business at the school, and more or less teaches students how to build video games for a potential future in the industry. He created the curriculum there. “He’s just the best,” says eighth-grader Kediejah Sullivan. “He’s my all-time favorite.” Krysta Porteus is a math teacher at Young Middle Magnet, where she has worked for four years. A self-confessed nerd who always loved school herself, Porteus teaches higher-level classes. She also works with students in robotics and engineering fields there. “She gives 200 percent every day,” Principal Nadine Johnson said. “Her lessons and lesson plans are always extremely detailed.” And they’re unique and captivating, too, the principal says. “The learning is so innovative,” Johnson says. “The kids love her. And that relationship piece is the key for learning.” The 26-year-old Porteus agrees, and places a lot of importance on that. “What makes me the happiest is when I can connect to students and make them feel confident in their skills,” she says. “Watching students who struggle or say ‘I don’t get this’ suddenly have an understanding or appreciation for the application of math is the very best part of my job.” Sharon Smith, a first-grade teacher at Claywell Elementary, also is a diehard believer in establishing those connections. “She will go above and beyond for her students,” Assistant Principal Renee Best said. “She makes those connections that are so key.” Smith, 50, was in retail management for 20 years before changing careers and becoming a teacher. She has been in the classroom for a decade now. She makes learning fun, according to Best. She will take something as simple as making a pizza and turn it into a learning experience that motivates students, the assistant principal says. “You can see they are excited to come to school,” Best says. It was when Smith volunteered in her son’s first-grade classroom years ago that she saw how the teacher’s innovative style helped make a difference in children’s lives. It was then she decided on the job change. Now, she is the one making that difference. “I love to see the excitement and enthusiasm that students have when they master a difficult concept or when they read or comprehend a challenging book,” Smith says. “I just love seeking the look on their face when they realize that they were able to do something that they previously thought was too hard.”

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