Surprising and Celebrating Amazing Teachers

Jan 23, 2023

On a foggy Monday morning in December, a charter bus pulls up to a Sarasota County Schools district office building at the Landings. Nearby, a table is set with coffee and donuts. People begin to show up—Education Foundation of Sarasota County team members, Sarasota County Schools employees, previous Teacher of the Year Award recipients, a reporter from the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Some pour a cup of coffee and grab a donut hole.

At 8:15 a.m., everyone climbs on the bus, and, after introductions, the teacher of the year tribute tour begins. As the bus turns right onto the Tamiami Trail, a piece of a closely guarded secret is revealed: the first stop is Garden Elementary School.

The bus travels south, through the thick fog. Friends and colleagues converse quietly as the excitement of the day is tempered by the lack of caffeine. The farther south, more tarps cover roofs, and more piles of debris remain along roadsides, somber reminders of the massive disruption from Hurricane Ian, which affected so many students and teachers in the district. Yet as the bus approaches the first stop, talk grows more animated.

At Garden Elementary, Tim Ferguson teaches music and serves as the director of education at the Venice Symphony. He also runs the Kids News Network, the daily morning announcements. On Monday morning, while he helps with the newscast, outside in the parking lot, a bus slows to a stop. At the nearby roofed play area, students sit, surrounded by teachers, administrators, district staff and officials. Students and teachers line the walkway leading from a school building to the play area. The fog does little to dampen the anticipation.

Suddenly there’s a change: smiles stretch across all the faces of those who have a vantage of an approaching teacher. Tim Ferguson, who’d been told he needed to attend a meeting, understands he’s been tricked and in fact is being celebrated as the elementary school Teacher of the Year. As he reaches the play area, everyone cheers. His wife and two children hug him. His principal and school officials congratulate him.Elementary School Teacher of the Year Tim Ferguson with Colleagues during a surprise celebration

Through the fog, the bus, with its riders livelier, louder, makes a short journey to Venice Middle School, where Joe Conner is administering the Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (FAST). He is called out of the testing room by his principal and, following him down the hallway, worries he’s done something wrong. Yet as they enter the cafeteria, applause breaks out, cheering. A student string ensemble, on stage, begins to play. The cafeteria is filled with students, colleagues, and the entourage of supporters. His wife hugs him. Joe appears truly stunned as he learns he’s the middle school Teacher of the Year.Joe Conner, middle school Teacher of the Year, with his wife at the surprise celebration.

The fog has cleared by the time the bus reaches Booker High School, where students, teachers, and supporters surround a podium on the grass outside the school. The marching band is there. Like her fellow finalists for Sarasota County Teacher of the Year, Courtney Smith has been tricked, and she too appears surprised by the scene she encounters. The crowd celebrates their beloved teacher and colleague. An ActivPanel has been wheeled out, and Smith’s mentor, in a recorded video, congratulates her. Her students come to the podium and share stories about how much Smith means to them. When asked if she would like to say anything more, Smith replies: “Let’s dance.” Her dance students oblige her.Courtney Smith, high school Teacher of the Year, encountering the surprise celebration.

A month later, these three Teacher of the Year finalists enter the Venice Community Center, in downtown Venice. Tables are set for a dinner catered by Michael’s on East. With many fellow teachers, they join a community of education supporters unifying to celebrate extraordinary individuals. Champagne is served, and music is played. George Couros, an author and speaker, shares stories of the ways teachers transform lives. The celebration is emceed by previous Teachers of the Year Kari Johnson and Dr. Jennifer Jaso. Then the big moment arrives: Tim Ferguson is announced as the Sarasota County Teacher of the Year. Amber Rylak, a physical education teacher at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, is recognized as the Innovation Teacher of the Year. Finalists Joe Conner and Courtney Smith and all the other Teachers of the Year are recognized and honored for their exceptional work preparing the next generation.Teacher of the Year Finalists with school and Education Foundation officials at the Teacher of the Year Award Celebration.

All sort of paths lead K – 12 teachers into their classrooms, and, for many, those first years of teaching present unique challenges—and rewards. Classrooms are dynamic, ever changing, and even veteran teachers encounter new wrinkles and must learn new tricks to best reach their students. Great teachers adapt. They keep as their guiding light the students who venture into their classroom each day.

Exceptional teaching is difficult, and for many teachers, their work can feel thankless. Yet what they do is essential to the health of so many young people and indeed to an entire community. To see the faces of teachers and their fellow educators and students as well as school and district administrators and community members light up when a new Teacher of the Year is recognized is amazing.

The tribute bus tour and the Ignite Education Teacher of the Year Award Celebration highlight the incredible journeys that exceptional teachers have made. It celebrates teachers dedicated to embracing change and meeting their students where they are while inspiring them to succeed. To all the generous donors who made these amazing events possible and to all the people who came out to support teachers, thank you. You made a difference. Your investment in teachers and in education is the best investment you can make.