Sarasota Florida Teacher of the Year has advice for finalist, Challenger recalls

  • Edie Smith is the only Sarasota County teacher to be named Florida Teacher of the Year, after winning the state honor in 1985 as an English teacher at Riverview High School.
  • The award brings hope to travel, deliver speeches and be an education ambassador in Florida.
  • This year, Kari Johnson is one of five statewide finalists.
  • Johnson will find out if she is the best teacher in the state at a Thursday night gala in Orlando.

Edie Smith has some tips for Fruitville Elementary School teacher Kari johnson if she is named Florida Teacher of the Year on Thursday.

Be ready for a crazy year. And after that is all over, continue teaching kindergarten.

Smith, 80, is the only Sarasota County teacher to be named Florida Teacher of the Year, after winning the state honor in 1985 as an English teacher at Riverview High School. The award brings hope to travel, deliver speeches and be an education ambassador in Florida.

“It was a great ride, but it exhausted me,” said Smith, who still lives in Sarasota and reconnected with hundreds of alumni on Facebook.

Previously:“Mommy Away From Home” named Sarasota County Teacher of the Year

After:Sarasota County’s top teacher raises the bar

This year, Johnson is one of five statewide finalists. She’ll find out if she’s the best teacher in the state at a Thursday night gala in Orlando.

She taught kindergarten at Fruitville Elementary School for 15 years. This is the classroom where administrators send new teachers to learn just by watching it in action.

“Watching the students grow up is the best part,” Johnson said Tuesday.

Kari Johnson, a kindergarten teacher at Fruitville Elementary, gives instructions to her students before handing out popsicles following a fundraising jog-a-thon at the school.  Johnson was named the 2020-21 Sarasota County Teacher of the Year.

Brush with tragedy

The winner announced Thursday will become “Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education”, named after the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986.

If the story had played out differently, the award might have been named in honor of Edie Smith.

After being named Professor of the Year in 1985, Smith was one of 11,000 candidates vying for a seat on the Challenger. President Ronald Reagan’s Teacher in Space project was going to send a lucky educator into space, and Smith wanted to be that teacher.

She became one of two finalists from Florida and one of 114 nominees nationwide to spend a week in Washington, meeting with NASA officials and interviewing for the coveted spot on the shuttle.

“Who better than Smith? A Tampa Tribune column asked, naming her along with Bob Hope as two of the most likely nominees.

She wasn’t chosen, of course, and she remembers her disappointment turning to desperate relief.

Smith was having lunch that day with former district spokesperson Roberta “Bobbie” Hamilton, watching the live broadcast on CNN of the launch. They gasped in horror when the space shuttle shattered and exploded 73 seconds after takeoff.

“It was one of the most horrible moments of my life and one of those ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t win this one’,” she said. “I got down on my knees. I just had JELLO legs watching this thing happen.

Edie Smith, an English teacher in Sarasota, was named Florida Teacher of the Year in 1984. Smith sits in the garden outside her home in Sarasota.

Two full-time jobs

During Smith’s tenure as Teacher of the Year, she continued to teach full-time at Riverview, while traveling around the state to give speeches and promote the profession.

“That year I had 32 conferences and taught five English classes at Riverview,” she said. “My poor husband led me every time I spoke.”

She lobbied lawmakers to give the winner a sabbatical so he could focus on promoting education for a year with the promise of returning to his job upon his return. In 1986, lawmakers passed the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education Act, which does just that.

“I decided that as long as I got the notoriety, I would be facing all the lawmakers in the state doing work for education,” she said.

Johnson said that if selected for this honor, she will focus her efforts as an Ambassador on helping teachers grow through collaboration, looking to her Fruitville team for inspiration.

“Pushing teachers to try new things, to share ideas,” Johnson said. “If it’s possible in kindergarten, then it’s possible in the upper grades.

Edie Smith, an English teacher in Sarasota, was named Florida Teacher of the Year in 1984. An article in the Herald-Tribune newspaper from May 4, 1984 was among the clippings she recorded in her albums.

Stay in class

Smith continued to teach until his retirement in 1996.

Those days were different, she said. His students read eight novels a year and had to write an essay every week. In the ’80s and’ 90s, Smith started complaining that it was too much work, but she said she never gave up.

At one point, Smith was dragged to the school board after a group of parents accused her of being a Communist because she had the students read Ayn Rand’s “hymn”. She gave every school board member a copy of the creepy dystopian novel, which pokes fun at collectivism, and they let the issue go.

In the years since winning the award, Smith has seen other winners promoted to administrative positions requiring completely different skills. It turns out that being a brilliant history teacher doesn’t always translate into managing babysitting teams and creating student schedules.

That’s why Smith is hoping Johnson can ignore the promotion’s siren song.

Johnson said on Wednesday that Smith had nothing to fear and that his career was with children, either teaching or helping others teach more effectively.

“I always wanted to stay in class,” she says. “I never see myself being an administrator.”

Watch the Teacher of the Year announcement live at 7 p.m. Thursday online at www.thefloridachannel.org.

Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at [email protected] or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.


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