The morning’s fog was still lingering as the school district’s administration pulled into Wewahitchka on Thursday — all the better for concealing their surprise visit to both Wewahitchka schools.
They hid out, chatting excitedly in Wewahitchka Elementary School’s front office while the students finished their testing. Then, brandishing loved ones and gifts, they made a beeline for the door to Mrs. Jeannie Baumgardner’s classroom.
“Is this what I think it is?” Baumgardner asked excitedly as Gulf District Schools Superintendent Jim Norton entered her third grade classroom.
“Congratulations, Gulf County Schools Teacher of the Year,” Norton replied.
“That means our class won!” Baumgardner exclaimed as her students clapped excitedly.
This year, both of the school district’s top accolades went to educators in Wewahitchka. Before surprising Baumgardner, the administrators had surprised the district’s employee of the year, Shannon Jo Martin, a paraprofessional for the Gulf Academy/in-school suspension, in her portable at Wewahitchka High School.
“I’m thankful that I have such a good support system and a support group, because there’s days that it’s challenging,” Martin said in tears as administrators and her students applauded.
Baumgardner and Martin were selected from a group of highly qualified nominees, with one support staff member and one teacher appointed from each school every year, along with an additional district-wide support staff member.
The four nominees for Gulf District Schools’ teacher of the year were observed by a three-person team of out-of-district administrators, who then selected the district winner based on the observation and a letter of recommendation from a colleague.
“The committee makes the decision. We don’t do it because we have a conflict of interest,” said Norton. “We want all four to win.
According to a letter of recommendation written by Baumgardner’s peer third grade teacher Kayla Bailey, Baumgardner is known around the school for her consistently positive attitude..
“As a colleague at Wewahitchka Elementary School, I have had the pleasure of working with Mrs. Baumgardner for five years,” Bailey wrote. “She has shown exemplary teaching strategies to ensure that all students receive the best possible education. She demonstrates kindness, equal opportunities and a passion for teaching.”
Baumgardner will go on to represent the school district at the state-wide Teacher of the Year competition in Tallahassee this summer, along with the winners from Florida’s other public school districts.
This year’s other nominees for Gulf District Schools Teacher of the Year were Lisa Finney, an ESE teacher at Port St. Joe Elementary School; Mitch Bouington, “Mr. B”, the band director at Port St. Joe High School; and Daphne Lister, the band and choir director and a U.S. history teacher at Wewahitchka High School.
The five nominees for School-Related employee of the year, along with their immediate supervisors, were interviewed by a three-person committee of retired educators, also independent of the district.
Martin’s recommendation letter, which was written by Wewa High School Principal Jay Bidwell, describes her as a dedicated employee who consistently goes above and beyond for her students.
“Ms. Shannon Jo reaches students who before would’ve fallen through the cracks. Many typically would have quit school, or in the best case scenario, at a minimum, would have failed a grade, ” Bidwell wrote.
“Believe it or not, Shannon Jo is not an instructor at Wewahitchka High School. She does all she does for a paraprofessional salary, which is less than half that of a teacher.”
This year’s other nominees for employee of the year were June Smiley, a food service employee from Port St. Joe Elementary School; Stephanie Easter and ESE paraprofessional at Wewahitchka Elementary School; and Deborah Barnes a member of the office staff at Port St. Joe High School.
Both Baumgardner and Martin were surprised and honored to have been chosen to receive the district’s accolades, and both expressed how excited they were for each other.
Norton, who made speeches for both of the winners, said that the process of selecting winners is always rigorous, and the recognition is well-deserved.
“Selecting the overall teacher of the year and support staff employee of the year is no easy task because we’ve got some great people here in Gulf County,” he said.