The Most Wonderful Time—to Celebrate Teachers

Guest Correspondence

Photo courtesy Education Foundation: Colleagues surprise Ronnique Major with news she is the District Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

Across the county, people are decorating their houses and storefronts and preparing for the holiday season. At the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, we’re busy getting ready for a different celebration: the Ignite Education Teacher of the Year Award Celebration. This yearly event, which the Education Foundation hosts in partnership with Sarasota County Schools and thanks to our generous donors, is one of my favorite occasions of the year. It is an opportunity to reflect on and to honor amazing teachers and all they do for their students, their schools and the community.

This year, I’m struck by the varied pathways that led the three district Teacher of the Year finalists into the classroom—and by something special that they share.

Ronnique Major, who teaches fifth grade at Emma E. Booker Elementary School and who grew up in Sarasota and attended Sarasota County Schools, knew she would teach from as far back as she can remember. She’d always had excellent teachers and wanted to be just such an educator. For 30 years, the Elementary School Teacher of the Year has dedicated her life to her students and has now even begun to teach her former students’ children.

Haley Brown, the Middle School Teacher of the Year, wanted to act and design sets on Broadway. While earning her theater degree at Florida State University, she spent a week in New York City and realized it wasn’t the direction she wanted to pursue. With her love of art that blossomed through stage design, she earned a master’s degree in art education and returned to Southwest Florida. Now in her fifth year at Pine View School, she teaches middle school art and high school theater.

Dennis Pinna came to Sarasota County Schools all the way from Rome, Italy, where he grew up and lived until meeting his wife at the international school where he taught. Pinna chose teaching after working as a lobbyist and then in finance. The High School Teacher of the Year followed his true passion and now shares his firsthand experience in Italian government and finance while teaching International History and World History at North Port High School. 

These finalists represent the 46 remarkable 2023–2024 school-based Teachers of the Year as well as all teachers across the county. They represent teaching as a profession. Just like Ronnique, Haley and Dennis, so many educators have taken varying paths to the classroom, paths that are essential to their teaching style and everything that they bring to their students. While they took different routes, all three finalists do share something special: their mothers have taught or still teach. These three inspiring individuals grew up with educators. They spent time in classrooms before they even attended school. They saw their mothers up late grading papers and planning lessons or even running a school. And they also understood the immense satisfaction that comes from caring for young people and inspiring in them a lifelong love of learning— because they were ultimately drawn to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Teachers all find their way to the profession differently, but the best of them care deeply about students and understand the special connection that happens in a classroom when students know they are loved, and when they’re challenged and captivated. We are so lucky to have such teachers in our community.

This year’s Ignite Education Teacher of the Year Award Celebration will take place at the Venice Community Center on Dec. 13, starting at 5 p.m. If you have not yet attended this event, I hope you will join us. It is such a privilege to host this most wonderful celebration of individuals dedicated to the community, individuals who, no matter their path to teaching, do so much for their students to help them reach their full potential.

Jennifer Vigne is president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

Photo courtesy Education Foundation: Colleagues surprise Ronnique Major with news she is the District Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

To learn more about this event and to purchase tickets, click here.

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