District 3 Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn (left) and Superintendent of Schools Addison Davis congratulate Tampa Palms Elementary teacher Sonya Kelly for being one of five Teacher of the Year finalists for the entire Hillsborough District.

Sonya Kelly was taken by surprise on December 7, when Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools Addison Davis and an entourage of school officials filled her third grade classroom at Tampa Palms Elementary with cheers.

They were there to announce that out of 15,000 teachers countywide, Kelly was chosen as one of five finalists for Hillsborough County’s Teacher of the Year.

How did she feel in that moment?

“A little bit overwhelmed, honestly, and kind of shocked because I just didn’t see it coming,” she said, as she choked back tears. “It’s a huge honor.”

Kelly has been teaching in Hillsborough County public schools for the past 12 years. She was selected by her peers at Tampa Palms Elementary (TPE) as the school’s Teacher of the Year and became one of 228 nominees for the District-wide title.

She did not win — the Teacher of the Year was Laura Widerberg, Biology Teacher at Armwood High — but just being a finalist was a buig accomplishment.

 “Mrs. Kelly is so deserving of this recognition,” said TPE principal Maryann Lippek. “She makes a lasting difference in the lives of her students. She believes in all of her students and helps them to believe in themselves.”

Of the five county finalists for Teacher of the Year, the five finalists for the Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year, and the three finalists for Instructional Support Employee of the Year, Kelly was the only one chosen from any of New Tampa’s public schools.

Kelly’s principal says she sets an example for other teachers.

“Her dedication and commitment to education is inspiring,” Lippek said. “Tampa Palms Elementary is very proud of her!”

While she appreciates the accolades, Kelly notes that they are not the most important thing to her.

“I know I am truly making a difference in the lives of my students and I am honored that my colleagues have recognized me for Teacher of the Year at my [school],” she says. “It’s an incredible moment to be celebrated by my peers, but the true gift comes from the gratitude in the eyes of my students.”

The other Teachers of the Year from their respective New Tampa schools are:

JASON PRATT Liberty Middle School
JACQUELINE KOEHLER, Hunter’s Green Elementary
COREEN FASSEL (right), Pride Elementary
DENISE LONG, Chiles Elementary
KYLA BAILEY, Turner/Bartels K8 School


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