TAMPA — Growing up, Lauren Cavicchi spent every day after school in her mother’s classroom at Claywell Elementary School, where she and her siblings helped craft bulletin board displays and pretended they were teachers.
Cavicchi came to share her mom’s love for reading and for the profession; soon there was no doubt she would one day become a teacher, too.
When Cavicchi heard the news that her mom, Denise Cona, was named this year’s Teacher of the Year at Claywell, she was ecstatic. One reason was that this is Cona’s last full year of teaching before she retires next year.
“My mom is a very passionate teacher,” Cavicchi said. “All eyes are on her, with very little effort. I always wanted that for myself. She’s taught me so much.”
To her surprise, Cavicchi — a second-grade teacher — learned that she, too, had been chosen top teacher at her school, Bryant Elementary.
“I was just so excited for my mom,” Cavicchi said. “It was her year. When I got it, it was funny. I never in my wildest dreams expected it.”
Now, mother and daughter are in the running for the Hillsborough County school district’s top teacher.
Teachers at each school voted the week of Nov. 11 for their top teachers. Next month, the district’s principal councils for elementary, middle and high school will whittle down the list to five finalists.
There will be three for elementary and one each for the middle and high school levels. In January, the five finalists will be announced, with surprise visits to their classrooms. The top five will be interviewed by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s staff, and a winner will be selected.
On Feb. 20, the district’s top teacher will be announced at the annual Excellence in Education awards ceremony.
Cona, who received the honor at her school once before, in 2003, was shocked to hear she was chosen again this year.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Cona, who has taught in Hillsborough County for 35 years. “I had never even thought about it. My other daughter and I were saying, ‘I hope Lauren gets it at her school.’ She had worked so hard.”
Two of Cona’s three children became teachers. Her other daughter, Taryn Menendez, taught at Bryant with Cavicchi before going on maternity leave this year.
As to why the sisters followed their mother’s career path: “They say it’s because I enjoyed it so much, that I was always happy,” Cona said. “They always came in after school and would want to write on the chalkboard and pretend they were teachers.”
For the past couple of years, the sisters job-shared in the same classroom. It allowed them to teach, collaborate with each other and focus more on being moms.
At one point, the sisters and their mom taught at Claywell at the same time, driving to school together every morning.
“The joke was, you were bound to get one of us,” Cavicchi said.
In her classroom at Claywell, Cona makes it a point to form a relationship with each and every one of her fifth-graders.
“I know my students,” she said. “I make sure they understand the importance of being in the classroom, learning something new every day and respecting each other. We’re all together longer than they are at home during the school year.”
She also makes it a point to laugh with her students, doling out high-fives when they answer a question correctly.
“She’s funny,” said student Callie Rhodes, 10. “She just makes you laugh so hard it hurts.”
One of the children’s favorite parts about Cona’s class is the four novel studies she conducts with them each year. Cona reads a classic novel out loud, and students follow along in their own copies.
“Reading is what they can do for themselves,” Cona said. “Right around this time, when you’re talking to them, they’re just finishing one novel and they’re into the second one. They’re so excited. If I impact them in that way, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
The class just finished “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell, which some students enjoyed so much it made them cry.
“She helps us comprehend what we’re reading,” Callie said.
Each spring, Cona teaches poetry lessons to her students, and she has them write their own poems.
“It’s unbelievable how they’re able to express themselves,” Cona said. “In the end, they all publish a poetry book of their own work. Boys, who fight it the most, sometimes end up being my best poets.”
Cavicchi, 33, is married with two children of her own, 7-year-old Jeffrey and 4-year-old Olivia. She has taught in Hillsborough County for 10 years.
One morning last week in her classroom, she directed her students to sit down on a colorful rug on the floor, to discuss similarities and differences between two fables they had read.
Like her mom, Cavicchi strives to foster a love of reading among her students.
Last year, she started using a computer program called Raz-Kids to monitor her students’ progress in reading. They can log in and listen to books read aloud, take quizzes and earn points. The program has been such a hit with Cavicchi’s students that other teachers are going to try it out next month.
Sheridan Figga, 7, a second-grader in Cavicchi’s class, said her teacher is a good choice for the honor she received.
“I wish she was my teacher for every single grade,” Sheridan said.