As Polk County Public Schools teacher of the year, Lake Gibson High School Spanish teacher Natalie McSwain gets the use of a Hyundai Elantra for two years, courtesy of Lakeland Automall. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

Natalie McSwain, a Spanish teacher at Lake Gibson High School, was named Polk County Public Schools 2023 Teacher of the Year.

“I’m in shock,” said McSwain, 29, when she walked off the stage following the announcement. “I love my students. I love what I teach.”

MIDFLORIDA Credit Union gave McSwain a $5,000 check, and Lakeland Automall donated the use of a new Hyundai Elantra for two years.

Julie Whiteley, the principal’s secretary at Fred Garner Elementary in Winter Haven, is the district’s School-Related Employee of the Year. MIDFLORIDA gave Whiteley a check for $2,500.

Both women will receive a custom ring donated by Herff Jones, as well as other gifts.

Lake Gibson High School Principal Ryan Vann, who was enjoying his school’s third-in-a-row teacher-of-the-year finalist Wednesday night, said McSwain quickly adapted to his “family” style of management, ensuring that everyone she comes in contact with feels loved and appreciated.

Natalie McSwain

“Natalie gives herself to her students every day beyond what our normal teachers do,” Vann said. “If there's a need, she is willing to fill it. If there's something that needs to be done, she does it without question.”

McSwain, who is in her eighth year of teaching, helps to translate important information for Spanish-speaking parents so they are kept informed. She also volunteered to sponsor the girl’s lacrosse team, the Spanish Club, the Foreign Language Club and to serve as a new-teacher mentor – a vital role for educators who have never been in a classroom before.

Vann said when he told McSwain that she would be moving her classroom to a portable, at first she was upset. Then, he said, she decided to embrace it.

“She said, ‘I want to make this the best portable possible!’ and researched how to do that,” Vann said following the announcement.

The result was a classroom with no desks – only comfortable places to sit, where students collaborate with one another and speak conversational Spanish.

“We have this great crazy classroom and we do things a little differently, but it really helps them develop those communication skills,” McSwain said in a video produced for the event. “They really are able to develop the skill of cultural diversity as well.”

Vann said they often take other teachers to McSwain’s classroom to observe her techniques.

McSwain told Jazbablog that, for those thinking about entering the teaching profession, she advises they listen to their instincts. “Go with your gut,” she said. “I tell my kids that in class – if you feel it, go with it. I always had it in the back of my head. If the feeling is there, it’s meant to be.”

Julie Whiteley

At Garner Elementary, Whiteley is often the first person to arrive at work, opening the doors at 6:15 to find out which classes need a substitute teacher and arranging for those. Then she greets students and employees as they come to school. She is known for having positive relationships with teachers and staff.

Whiteley takes time to read to students and comforts them when they are sick. In a video produced for Wednesday night’s event, she is shown working on a drawing with special education student Zinonne Payne, guiding his hand on the paper. He softly whispered to her that he didn’t know how to draw a muffler.

“Me either, so let's just make something,” she told him and he looked at her lovingly and replied, “Thank you.”

“The kids are my inspiration,” Whiteley said. “You know you have to love kids to be in this profession. Just a simple hello to them makes their day because sometimes they come in and feel like they're not worthy. And just for you to smile at them and say ‘Hi,’ you know it changes their whole day.”

PCPS also recognized the district’s Principal of the Year, Rodrick Gray from Laurel Elementary; as well as the Assistant Principal of the Year, Sarah Miranda from Mulberry Middle. Superintendent Frederick Heid invited Miranda’s young son to come on stage with her for photographs. It was also the boy’s seventh birthday.

One moment that caught everyone’s attention was during Mulberry High School career planning teacher Kevin Wells’ video.

“Meet the kids at the door. High five them. Give them a hug. I tell kids all the time I love you. And I do, I …” his voice trailed off as he became emotional and had to pause. “We love our kids. And that’s what I want them to know.”

And then he said that teachers didn’t go into the profession for the money.

“There ain’t no money in this,” Wells said. Laughter and then applause began swelling up from the audience. “You do it because you’re trying to … God put you in this place for a reason. That’s why you do it – you do it because you love the kids.”

At the end of the ceremony, Heid — who sat in on all salary negotiations this year — said he is working on raises for everyone, including veteran teachers.

McSwain and Whiteley will now go on to the state competition. The winner for state teacher of the year will be announced over the summer. Florida has about 185,000 public school teachers, with more than 7,000 in Polk County.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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