Clearwater instructor named Pinellas Teacher of the Year

Sarah Painter was one of 10 Teacher of the Year finalists this year, who were selected from 131 nominees.

Pinellas County’s top teacher was named Jan. 21 during a Facebook live event.

Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego surprised Sarah Painter, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater, as she, along with nine other finalists, waited to discover if they would be named the district’s Teacher of the Year.

“I won!” Painter said as the winner was announced, and cheers from an audience of students and colleagues erupted. “I won!”

The cheers and clapping continued and Painter stared in disbelief as Grego entered her classroom to congratulate her.

Presented with gifts, Painter, behind a gold sequined mask, addressed her classroom, as well as Facebook onlookers.

“It’s an honor to be recognized,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a district to raise a teacher.

“From my administration — past and present — to my coworkers, to my friends across the county, to my Eisenhower family, to my students who have taught me more than I could ever learn, and last, to my family, my husband and my six children, and the sacrifices they have had to make to allow me to be great, I am so honored,” she said.

Painter said during her acceptance speech that at the beginning of school, she found the technical difficulties surrounding simultaneous teaching to be frustrating, causing her to moan and groan during the process. When it was brought to her attention by her students, Painter realized she needed to change her mindset.

“I told them to hold me accountable,” she said. “So every time our sound went out, we would say, ‘Find joy!’”

“It was a daily reminder that your perspective and your mindset changes everything,” she continued. “And instead of being disappointed, we found joy in every moment. So my message to you is, in a year when everything feels so uncertain, find joy, be more, look for the good because it is always there.”

Prior to the winner’s announcement, Grego, who was waiting outside of Painter’s classroom, said it is more important now than ever to honor teachers.

“While this virtual event of our evening of excellence looks different, I’m incredibly excited that thousands have joined us to recognize and honor all of our teachers — not just the nominees, not just the 10 finalists — but each and every teacher in Pinellas County,” Grego said.

Painter is in her 18th year of teaching and holds a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida.

In addition to snagging the top spot, Painter was awarded, among other things, a $7,500 Kane’s furniture package, $2,200 courtesy of the Francis Kiernan Schoonmaker Trust/Pinellas Community Foundation, $2,000 courtesy of the Pinellas Education Foundation, a $2,500 scholarship from Nova Southeastern University, and a private suite and the first pitch during a Tampa Bay Rays game.

Painter has also automatically been entered into the statewide Teacher of the Year competition, which is sponsored by the Florida Department of Education.

Painter was one of 10 finalists this year, who were selected from 131 nominees.

This year’s finalists included Joycelyn Avery-Wright (Nina Harris ESE Center), Nicole Caltabellotta (74th Street Elementary), Karen Collier (Leila Davis Elementary), Heather Hole (Oak Grove Middle), Allison Jurado (Oakhurst Elementary), Mark Powers (Clearwater High), Jennifer Riddick (Fairmount Park Elementary), Gregory Stewart (East Lake Middle), and Kelly Webb (Palm Harbor University High).