Florida’s Teacher of the Year Finalists Represent Outstanding Colleagues

Each year, the Florida Department of Education honors the top public school educators from across the Sunshine State. Florida’s 2015 state finalists have been on quite a journey to make it to our celebration, including being named both their school and district Teacher of the Year.

All five of these incredible educators are deserving of being named Florida’s top teacher. However, we would like to know who inspires you!

More about our finalists:

2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist - Lyndsey Matheny

2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Lyndsey Matheny

Lyndsey Matheny teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to students in her second grade class and third grade class. Her experience specializing in STEM education, has helped her to create more hands-on lessons for her students. Lyndsey represents Indian River County schools.

Watch Lyndsey explain how she helps students realize  mistakes are great learning tools at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlheZzayjmw.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Kevin Ford

Kevin Ford has lead the performing arts program at Tarpon Springs High School for the past 20 years, because he believes in educating the whole student: body, mind and soul. When he’s not in the classroom, he is directing the high school’s jazz band or marching alongside students in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Watch Kevin describe why he became an educator at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa38WohUNDw.


2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist- Daryl Cullipher

When Daryl Cullipher graduated from St. Augustine High School in St. Johns County, she knew she wanted to become an educator. But what she didn’t know was that just a few years later she would return to her former high school to inspire Florida’s next generation of educators.

Daryl is the leader of the teaching career academy at her school, which gives students hands-on experience in local schools. Watch Daryl talk about what this recognition has meant to her students at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiOLnlKrthg.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Jill Espinosa

Jill Espinosa of Flagler County will tell you that her favorite grade is Kindergarten, because her students come to school ready to learn and grow. The dedicated teacher often uses peer-to-peer learning in her classroom to help struggling students gain confidence.

Outside of the classroom, she often uses social media to interact with parents. Watch Jill describe how she helped one particular student gain the necessary skills to succeed in her classroom at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCT4uh8p7tY.



2015 Florida Teacher of the Year Finalist – Christie Bassett

Our last finalist comes from Polk County where she has spent her entire career as an arts educator. When talking to Christie Bassett, it is evident that she uses her art assignments to enhance what students are learning in their core subjects.

When she is not creating art work with her students, she often sacrifices her lunch break to serve as a mentor. Watch Christie describe her heart-warming experience as a mentor at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fW50t8riTA.

The winner of the 2015 Macy’s/Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year award will be announced by First Lady Ann Scott during a special ceremony on Thursday, July 10, 2014.


Changing Course

Guest post by Brandon Clayton. A Leon County teacher for 11 years, currently teaching at Bond Elementary School. Mr. Clayton was the 2013-2014 Leon County Glenn-Howell Distinguished Educator of the Year. He is also the vice president of the Tallahassee Area Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

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Eight years ago, one of my third grade students went into foster care. I wanted to do everything in my power to help him through this tough time. As an educator, I believe I can change the course of a child’s life through helping him/her identify strengths that can be used to achieve success. I am sensitive to the needs of all children especially those who are involved with the child welfare system.

Based on my experiences, here are some ways educators can help children in their classrooms who are in foster care:


BE PATIENT. Understand that the child has been through a lot, but this does not give them an excuse to get out of work or misbehave. I had a new student once who had severe issues going on in his home and he was having trouble with his school work, specifically reading. When it was his turn to read aloud in class, he refused, threw the book across the room and slammed his chair back. I immediately realized this outburst was not to cause trouble – this kid was very embarrassed and he needed my support. For the next few weeks I alternated working with him individually and pairing him with a student in my class who was a strong reader. I made it very clear to him that this was not an on-going arrangement – very soon he would be reading aloud by himself just like the other students. This process gave him the self confidence he needed and over a period of time, his reading skills greatly improved.

Continue reading Mr. Clayton’s blog at http://blog.myflfamilies.com/2014/05/changing-course/.


Making Connections to Boost Classroom Instruction


Long before I began my teaching career, I worked as a switchboard operator at vending machine factory in Aurora, Illinois. Through the summers after high school, I worked a number of odd jobs, including driving a forklift and packaging textbooks.

Part of the time I was a relief switchboard operator and my sole job was to use electrical cords to connect one caller to another on a giant, high-back switchboard. I had to make sure that when a caller dialed the switchboard he or she was connected to the right person.

After almost 30 of years working on behalf of students, I still think about that job and how today’s teachers are often tasked with helping students and their families make important connections. Whether you’ve helped a student understand a real life application of what they’ve learned, sent home information to parents, or even helped the entire family receive additional services, you have served as a vital link for your students.

Last week I had the pleasure of announcing the finalists for the 2015 Macy’s/Florida Teacher of the Year Award. I can tell you that each one of these talented educators has helped students make connections between classroom knowledge and future goals and I know there are many more outstanding educators, like you, inspiring students to find their passion. I hope that you were able to spend this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week doing what you love and knowing that we truly appreciate you for it.

On behalf of the Florida Department of Education, thank you for being the invaluable link between students, their families and a lifetime of success.


Pam Stewart

Commissioner of Education

Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center Helps Student Learning Soar

Dr. Barbara Shirley, Principal
Florida Principal of the Year 2013-2014
Alta Vista Elementary School
Sarasota, Fla

Research has shown that the most successful students are those whose parents are involved in their education. These students tend to earn better grades, score higher on standardized tests, have better attendance records and show a more positive attitude toward school.

While Sarasota, Florida is known for its white sandy beaches, thriving arts community, and multi-million dollar homes, Alta Vista Elementary School is a Title I school with a diverse, low-income population where students struggle to meet proficiency levels in reading and math state standards.

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At Alta Vista, 76 percent of our students come from minority families (27 percent African American, 38 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and 7 percent Indian/Multi-ethnic), 30 percent live in homes where a language other than English is the primary language, and 94 percent of the 639 students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

A majority of our students come from low-income families who struggle to put food on the table and gas in their cars. Most of our parents are not educated, often having had negative experiences in school and becoming statistics in our educational system by dropping out of high school. As a result, parent involvement was minimal and we struggled to get them to volunteer in the school, attend parent educational programs, conferences and work with their children at home.

We were challenged to find a way to increase parent involvement and capitalize on our community resources to support student learning.

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center was created six years ago as a solution to our dilemma. We believed that if we could provide a safe learning environment that was exciting and supportive, we could attract parents and community volunteers who would join us in our efforts to make a difference in the lives of children and families.

Each year, our Eagles’ Nest provides a specialized program for up to 250 at-risk students where community and parent volunteers provide individualized, intensive instruction in reading and math. In six years, our Eagles’ Nest has grown from 25 volunteers to more than 150 volunteers who are parents, grandparents, corporate employees, business owners, neighborhood church and YMCA members, community nonprofit organizations, and retired teachers, principals, and superintendents who reside in Sarasota.

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center is located in a special room in the Media Center, where there are nine individual “executive” tables set up with school supplies and a colorful privacy divider board enhanced with reading, math, and writing instructional resources. Throughout the room, there are curriculum materials and bulletin boards with teaching aides and information for volunteers. Along one wall is a display of the “master schedule” with the volunteers’ names, the days and times they are at Alta Vista, and the names of their students. Since the schedule and names of volunteers and students are sometimes fluid, the information is moveable and easily manipulated.

While the Eagles’ Nest is managed by a volunteer coordinator, classroom teachers provide the instructional focus and curriculum materials used by volunteers during their 30 minutes of daily or weekly individualized instruction with students. They use progress monitoring data to guide the work of the volunteers and monitor student progress each week. At the end of each session, the volunteer completes a feedback form for the teacher, updating the student’s progress. At varying times, the teacher meets with their students’ volunteers to collaborate and share information and strategies to support student learning.

In an effort to provide our volunteers with the most current instructional tools and best practices, our teachers lead training workshops in reading and math strategies and present important curriculum materials. Volunteers have attended the Ruby Payne: A Framework for Understanding Poverty training to gain a greater understanding and sensitivity to the needs of our students. Our volunteers are eager to learn and use their time wisely in providing care and instruction to maximize student learning.

Throughout the past six years, the Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center has had a powerful impact on our student achievement. The benefit of the relationship and bond between students and their volunteer has made a difference in how students feel about themselves and their success in school.

We have increased parent involvement by providing them with a safe and secure environment to get involved in the school and the skills to work with their children and other students. A survey taken by students, volunteers and teachers indicated Eagles’ Nest students increased performance on weekly test scores and grades, completed more classwork and homework, had a greater understanding of what was being taught in the classroom, increased attendance, and had a more positive attitude in school.

A few comments made by students were “My volunteer helps me learn to read. I am getting good at it.” “I am happy when it is Monday and I see my volunteer.” “My volunteer is fun and makes me smile.” “I love my mom coming to my school and helping me.” Students often refer to their volunteers as their grandmother, grandfather, big sister or big brother. Volunteers have stated, “I feel good every time I am with my student, because I know I am having a positive impact on that child’s life. As one mother stated, “I finally know how to help my child be successful in school.”

During the past six years, the Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center has been recognized as a model program in our school district where other administrators have replicated the program in their schools. It has earned the PTA Parent Involvement Award for its efforts to increase parent involvement in the school, won a special Positive Change Award recognizing it for embracing the spirit of positive change in our community, and there have been multiple media articles published giving our Eagles’ Nest many accolades.

The Eagles’ Nest has become a multi-generational partnership where relationships between families and the larger community benefit our at-risk students’ learning needs. Perhaps most important is that when responsibility for children’s learning is shared by the school, home and community, children have more opportunities for life-long success.

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center is an exemplar program created as a solution to a lack of parent involvement that has transformed the culture of our school community. In these difficult economic times, a shared vision and commitment by parents, educators, and community resulted in “thinking outside the box” to find a creative solution.

I would be interested in learning how other schools have developed creative solutions to increasing parent and community involvement. By sharing our ideas, all of our students will develop a passion for learning, a love of school, and a hope for a future where their dreams will become a reality.

Lattices and Leadership

By Dorina Sackman

Florida’s 2014 Teacher of the Year

When I was named one of four finalists for the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, many at the Florida Department of Education could tell you that the entire building heard my screams of joy upon hearing the news. After I got the call from Commissioner Pam Stewart, I remember instinctively screaming in my New York accent, “We did it! We did it! Oh my Gawd, Florida teachughs! We are on the MAP!”

I immediately called the department’s Teacher of the Year program coordinator and exclaimed, “We did it!” Her calm, but confident response shocked me. “YOU did it because you always think of our teachers first. That’s a leader!” A Leader?  Me? But I’m “just” a teacher…

I love teaching

And there was my moment of Zen.

“Just.” A word all teachers must remove from their vocabulary when describing who we are (and you know you’ve said it). We are not “just” teachers, we are educators! We must use our expertise, hands-on experiences in the classroom and voice to elevate our profession.

Just look online at any educational organization’s upcoming conference and you’ll see at least one session featuring teacher leadership. From national to state to local conferences, attendees are learning about these new “buzz words” focusing on teacher leadership.

But what does it all mean?

Well, that’s where you come in. The definition is subject to one’s own interpretation, and so I ask you, what does teacher leadership look like? What does it mean to you? Is teacher leadership something of interest to you? At present, what are your options at your school and/or district to help you remain in the classroom, but also be a teacher leader? Why do you think there is such an increased awareness of the need for teacher leaders?

Too often, teachers have nowhere to go in their profession as far as advancement. Many of us are thirsty to do more for student success, but have no desire to go into administration. Yet, it is the traditional ladder we must climb: teacher to dean to assistant principal to principal and so on. If your goal is administration, there still needs to be a shift from the outdated ladder of growth to a more modern lattice.

A lattice, as mathematics teachers know, is a multi-dimensional structure that extends infinitely in any direction. For gardeners, a lattice is a structure that provides growth in many different directions; exactly what we need in education; more choices to get involved, share ideas, innovate (not Marzano’s innovate, your innovate) and research.

I see us all as the roses blooming on that lattice, spreading beauty via our strength in numbers and our healthy desire for growth. Together we can lead and grow, so our students can do the same.

Supporting a Brighter Future for Florida’s Students

By Pam Stewart, Commissioner of Education

I hope each one of you had a restful spring break. Although it is an exciting time to be an educator, the many changes Florida has implemented during the past few years to improve student outcomes can sometimes seem extensive.

shutterstock_174981833Last week we announced that the American Institutes for Research (AIR) was selected to develop Florida’s new statewide assessments for the next school year. I chose AIR because I believe that it is the best option for Florida’s students.

I’ve met with countless Florida educators who have asked that our new tests provide a more authentic assessment of our students’ grasp of the Florida Standards. Just as you are employing interactive activities to boost student learning in your classrooms, I believe we need an assessment that allows students to write and respond in non-traditional methods.

This test will focus less on finding the right answer and more on demonstrating higher order thinking skills. You have my commitment that students, educators and parents will be able to preview samples of new question types by taking practice tests that will be made available for anyone interested in reviewing them.

We have already received several questions from Florida educators regarding specific aspects of the assessment, and I encourage you to continue to email us your questions. You are the best advocate for your students, and I am grateful for your tremendous efforts to prepare your students for success, both inside and outside the classroom.

Florida’s Top Teacher a National Finalist for Fifth Straight Year


National Teacher of the Year finalist, Dorina Sackman, answers questions during the Governor’s Education Accountability Summit in August 2013.

For the fifth year in a row, the Florida Department of Education/Macy’s Teacher of the Year is a National Teacher of the Year finalist. Dorina Sackman, Florida’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, was named one of four finalists for the prestigious award today by the Council of Chief State School Officers. She joins educators from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia contending for the national award. The winner will be announced in April.Governor Scott said, “Florida teachers are the foundation of our education system and provide critical help in preparing students for success in life, a career and in college. I had the honor of meeting Dorina this past year at our first annual Teacher of the Year Summit, and was pleased to award her as the Florida Teacher of the Year. I congratulate Dorina on this great honor and look forward to working with her and all of Florida’s teachers as we make Florida the best education system in the nation.”

“I extend my heartfelt congratulations to Dorina Sackman for being named a National Teacher of the Year finalist,” said Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart. “Florida has a long history of outstanding educators and I am pleased that the Sunshine State is again included for this prestigious honor.”

Dorina Sackman is an 8th grade English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Advanced Placement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at Westridge Middle School in Orlando, and has been an ESOL teacher for more than 15 years. She was named Florida’s Teacher of the Year and Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education in July 2013. She serves as an education advocate and goodwill ambassador representing educators throughout the Sunshine State.

Continue reading here.