EAST MANATEE -- Six-year-old Emma Watson was given a special task Wednesday night: announcing the 2015 Teacher of the Year for the Manatee County School District during the fourth annual Excellence in Education award ceremony.
The award went to her teacher: Brandi Whitman, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher at Gullett Elementary School in her fourth year as an educator.
"Teaching is by far the most rewarding career. I can't imagine doing anything else," Whitman said. "I'm truly blessed to have chosen a career that doesn't feel like work."
It takes a special person to work with kindergarten students, said Whitman's principal.
"She just has a strong intuition about children," said Principal Kathy McLean.
If a student has a problem or an issue, Whitman takes it as a reflection on herself without blaming the child or the family, assistant principal Michael Kelley said.
"It's a true love for children," Kelley said.
Whitman was one of four teachers up for the teaching award.
Marilyn Coughlin, executive assistant to Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, was honored as the Support Employee of the Year.
Coughlin, a 58-year-old 19-year employee with the district, is the perfect combination of professionalism and compassion, according to her peers. She goes above and beyond her duties, tracking down answers for employees and the public, even if she's not the one responsible for the information.
"She's exceptional," Hall said. "If people call the office and they're upset, by the time they're done with her, they're not upset."
Coughlin was one of four support employees nominated. After watching videos and learning more about the other candidates, she said she didn't feel deserving.
After watching the district's turmoil in the last two year, she said she's learned a lot about how it functions.
"As a support staff person, our job is to teach the students in Manatee County," she said. "I'm truly blessed and honored."
The awards ceremony, designed to honor teachers and employees who go above and beyond their duties, is sponsored by the Manatee Education Foundation.
The Teacher of the Year and Support Employee of the Year each win a $5,000 cash prize from Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, an all-expenses paid trip to Pittsburgh for a Pirates game, a Best Buy gift card and a custom-engraved plaque.
"It's only fitting we pay tribute," said Mary Glass, executive director of the Manatee Education Foundation. "It is our privilege to provide funding for innovative education opportunities like this."
Whitman now moves onto the Florida Department of Education Macy's Teacher of the Year competition.
Coughlin moves on to the Florida School-Related Employee of the Year competition.
"Each and every one of the employees demonstrates excellence on a daily basis," Superintendent Rick Mills said. "They provide inspiration and motivation for all of us to emulate."
Whenever the stress of being superintendent grows overwhelming, all he has to do is visit a campus or talk with an employee to cheer up, an emotional Mills told the crowd.
The ceremony, which featured a red carpet at the entrance of Manatee Technical College, has been in the works for six months. Finalists were surprised by a team of district employees in December.
Each school and work site in the Manatee County School District was allowed to nominate employees for the awards. Committees comprised of peers, fellow educators and administrators selected four finalists for each award.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.