WESLEY CHAPEL — One was headed for life as an engineer until a chance to tutor other students at his high school sent him in a different direction.
Another leads students in an after-school effort to help the underprivileged.
The third let her love for reading and writing guide her into the life of a teacher.
The three finalists for Pasco’s Teacher of the Year have more than 75 years of combined experience and, although they took different paths to gain their experience, all three like nothing better than to see the glimmer in the eyes of students who finally understand a lesson.
The three are Patrick Connolly, a math teacher at Land O’ Lakes High; James Washington, a ninth-grade language arts teacher at Zephyrhills High; and Marci Williams, a teacher of third-grade gifted students at Wesley Chapel Elementary.
The winner will be announced Saturday evening during an event sponsored by the Pasco Education Foundation and held at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge High School.
At the same event, awards will be given for the district’s top school administrator, district-based administrator, school-related personnel and non-instructional non-bargaining employee.
Here’s a quick introduction to those three teaching finalists.
Connolly grew up in New York City and, as a high school senior, was eying an engineering career when fate intervened.
He was given an opportunity to tutor other students, and it became apparent he had found his calling.
“I had been given a gift and to not use that gift would be to thumb my nose at the universe,” Connolly said.
He passed on a chance to attend MIT and instead, on the recommendation of one of his teachers, headed to the University of Chicago.
After he earned his degree, Connolly and his wife taught in Missouri for five years. At that point he became concerned that raising a family on two teacher salaries wouldn’t be all that easy, so he pondered a career change.
He joined the Navy, and in 1981 was an officer and instructor at the Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando. After six years there, he spent two years at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in New Port, R.I.
By then, he had been spoiled by Florida weather, so vowing never to shovel snow again, Connolly ended his Navy career in 1989 and returned to teaching in public schools, this time in Pasco County.
This is his 23rd year at Land O’ Lakes High, where he teaches Algebra II and calculus.
One of the challenges these days is keeping the students interested because “their attention spans have shrunk,” he said. Sometimes he has to drive a point home again and again, but then comes that moment when “the light bulb goes off.”
“You take something complex and you explain it to a kid and they get it,” Connolly said.
Being named a Teacher of the Year finalist came at a difficult time, yet in some ways the right time, for Washington.
His father had died and he had just returned from bereavement leave when he received word.
“There was this sort of release of what I was dealing with, with my father’s death,” he said. “It made it mean a little more.”
Washington came from a family of teachers. His mother and his aunt were teachers, and his brother is, too. His parents instilled in him the importance of helping others, and teaching seemed a good way to do that.
“It became a very natural fit,” Washington said.
Still, he had some early career adjusting to do. After he graduated from Gulf High School, Washington enrolled at the University of Tampa as a marine science major. He had what he describes as a “falling out with science” and transferred to Saint Leo University where he graduated in 1995 and took at job in Hillsborough County as a middle school language arts teacher.
“Coming out of college, I didn’t feel old enough to deal with high school students,” he said. “I wasn’t that far removed from their ages. I wanted to make sure I was able to create that authority and respect.”
He came back to Pasco County and teaches ninth-grade language arts at Zephyrhills High, where he also sponsors the ZAP club, which stands for the Zephyrhills Ambassadors Program. The group helps provide free backpacks, physicals, haircuts and eye exams to students from low-income families.
“I think there’s this idea that teachers clock in and clock out and it’s done,” Washington said. “We need to do things to show kids they have to be productive members of the community.”
Williams, in her 19th year as a teacher, likes to joke with her students that she “really wanted to be a super model and that didn’t work out for me.”
In truth, teaching was no backup plan. It’s all she’s ever done, drawn to the profession through her love of reading and writing, and the desire to inspire that love in others.
After she graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in English, Williams took a job teaching language arts at Stewart Middle School in Zephyrhills.
Middle school students sometimes have a reputation as the toughest to deal with, but Williams didn’t find that to be the case for her.
“I loved middle school,” she said.
She made the switch to elementary school when her son was starting kindergarten. The logistics of dealing with childcare, his school schedule and her work schedule could be handled more easily if they were on the same schedule.
One of the greatest challenges in teaching, she said, is trying to keep up with what interests young people and how they incorporate technology into their lives.
It’s important to know what students love so you can make use of that to motivate them, she said, whether it’s keeping abreast of who the contenders are on “American Idol” or knowing the latest popular tunes.
“As I get older, it’s more challenging,” Williams said. “I have to keep putting myself in their shoes. The older you get, the harder it is.”
Like Connolly and Washington, Williams said she is honored to be one of the three finalists.
“When they called, it was the same exciting feeling you have when you are 22 or 23 and they call and offer you a job,” Williams said. “I remember going on so many interviews. You are at your parents house and you are waiting. Then you get that call.”
In this case, Williams was at school in her classroom, rather than her parents’ house, when this call came.
So, “jumping up and down,” she went next door to share the news with a colleague.