The district’s administration moved quickly through Port St. Joe High School on Tuesday morning, sneaking down hallways and buzzing with excited chatter about their surprise.
They picked up flowers and loved ones on the way into the school, stopping occasionally to whisper about their mission to colleagues who gave the gaggle curious glances. It’s not often that they get to announce both of the district’s annual top prize winners in the same building.
But this year, after surprising school support staff Employee of the Year Debbie Peak, a guidance secretary, it was just a short trip down the hallway to surprise the district’s Teacher of the Year, Kim McFarland, in her geometry classroom.
“This doesn’t happen very often,”said Jim Norton, Gulf District Schools’s superintendent, who joined the group of administrators. “This year, it just kind of happened to be that way.”
“We bring in an interview team from out of town, from out of the district, that then makes the overall determination,” he continued. “You know, they burned and dazzled and impressed a group from out of town.”
McFarland and Peak 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.
“Kim is a caring soul, who sees every student as an opportunity to help in whatever way she can,” read McFarland’s letter of recommendation, which was written by Angel Parker, the school’s media specialist.
“She does not sugar-coat the truth on how they should behave, but she is the first one to listen to their issues and try to offer sound advice as both their teacher and their National Honor Society advisor.”
McFarland 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 73 other public school districts.
This year’s other nominees for Gulf District Schools Teacher of the Year were Chevonelle Johns, who teaches English at Wewahitchka High School; Michelle Baker, who teaches 2nd grade at Port St. Joe Elementary School; and Kayla Bailey, who teaches 3rd grade at Wewahitchka Elementary 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.
Peak’s recommendation letter, which was written by Port St. Joe High School’s principal, Sissy Godwin, describes her dedication and flexibility.
“On any given day, you will find Mrs. Peak seated at her desk with a welcoming smile on her face,” Godwin wrote. “She is known for her grand sense of humor and her team player mentality. Working in an environment where duties are subject to change quickly, she is always up to the task.”
Peak has been working in the district for more than 37 years, spending the first 30 years at Port St. Joe Elementary School.
This year’s other nominees for employee of the year were Elizabeth Guemmaz, a paraprofessional at Port St. Joe Elementary School; Ashley Forehand, a secretary at Wewahitchka High School; Tiffany Brock, a secretary at Wewahitchka Elementary School; and Julie Hedberg, a bus driver for the Wewahitchka schools.
Both McFarland and Peak 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.
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