SARASOTA -- Three educators from Manatee County School District were recognized Monday evening at the first Congressional Teacher Awards.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, who established the awards ceremony, handed out praise and certificates to Southeast High School teacher Dana Van Bussum, Electa Lee Magnet Middle School teacher Dudley Leigh and Oneco Elementary School teacher Jennifer Willis.
Willis, who teaches first grade, was named Educator of the Year at the Excellence in Education Awards for Manatee County on March 12. As part of her award, the 31-year-old teacher received a $5,000 check from the Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, an all-expense paid trip to Pittsburgh for a Pirates game courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Lenovo Thinkpad tablet, an all-expense paid trip for a teacher's conference at the University of Notre Dame, a $2,000 scholarship to Nova Southeastern University and $1,000 from the Macy's Foundation, a quarter of which would be donated to Oneco Elementary school.
As she left the Congressional Teacher Awards, Willis looked moved with her certificate in hand.
"It's overwhelming to be recognized by my peers in that way and totally surprising," she said, adding she works with many people who go "above and beyond" as she does.
"To be recognized in this way -- to be singled out -- seems so surreal," Willis added.
Asked what makes a good educator, Willis said: "hard work, patience, friendliness and the desire to be a team."
The rewarded teachers were each nominated by their school district and Buchanan listed them March 18 in the Congressional Record.
"I was once told that children are 25 percent of the population, but they are 100 percent of the future. And it's true. The education of a child is an investment, not only in that student, but in the future of our country," Buchanan said at the time, adding he established the Congressional Teacher Awards "to honor educators for their ability to teach and inspire students."
"For me, as the first one in my family to go to college, education is an equalizer and an opportunity to participate in the world economy," Buchanan said after the ceremony. "I had a teacher who changed my thinking -- changed my life. We want teachers that can inspire and educate -- and that's what we had tonight."
Leigh, originally from Bradenton, said it feels great to be recognized.
"It's very heartwarming to know that you have been noticed for a long period of hard work and, with the hard work that people are doing in Congress, it's nice to know that they take the time to notice the wee ones down at the bottom with us," Leigh said.
Leigh said teaching has kept her young and has made her thinking "more global."
"Over those 27 years, there has been so much change -- not just in technology but in family units -- that we look at everything differently," she said.
Sarasota County School District teachers recognized Monday: Sarasota High School teacher Gina Barresi, Venice Middle School teacher Ian Ackroyd and Taylor Ranch Elementary School teacher Lisa Figueroa.
After Willis was named Manatee Educator of the Year, she said her first-grade students saw a newspaper story about the honor posted in their lunchroom. They also saw her trophies.
"They just think 'Wow! So you're the 'Teacher of the Year' for the rest of your life!'" Willis said with a smile. "They're 6. They don't really grasp the whole thing, but they're proud."
Amaris Castillo, Law Enforcement/Island Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.