For Saint Leo University alumna Brooke Whittington ’17, her favorite part of being an educator is seeing when "the lightbulb comes on." Whittington, who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education, now is one of five finalists for the 2023 Florida Teacher of the Year award. The new Teacher of the Year will be announced Thursday, July 14, in Orlando, FL, according to the Florida Department of Education, and will go on to serve for one year as the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education.

“Students oftentimes become very frustrated with their tasks because of the level of difficulty,” Whittingon said. “However, after working together with their peers, when they truly understand, it brings me a sense of joy like no other. Seeing students succeed and have great pride in their work is something that I hope to be a part of for many more years.”

Whittington earned her degree from Saint Leo’s former Trenton/Madison education center locations and the Lake City Education Center, graduating summa cum laude.

The Florida Teacher of the Year finalist said, “I chose to attend Saint Leo to further my education because not only are there so many wonderful opportunities with the classes themselves, but also the locations. I have always enjoyed being a part of smaller class sizes. Having the ability to be in the classroom with my fellow classmates and professors, without having to be a part of a group of several hundred other students in the room, made me feel like I could truly connect with my graduating class and instructors, and receive the help that I needed to further understand the materials that we were learning.

“Saint Leo is a university that teaches what you will truly need to understand as you walk into the classroom and begin your journey as an educator,” Whittington continued. “I am very thankful for the many, many things that I learned as a Lion!”

A fourth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Bell Elementary in Bell, FL, in Gilchrist County, Whittington has served in that capacity for five years. She focuses on “creating engaging lessons that affect her students in positive ways,” the Florida Department of Education stated. “Mrs. Whittington also teaches about service by leading schoolwide efforts to provide blankets to the local nursing home and by starting a library swap program to promote literacy.”

Whittington said being named a Florida Teacher of the Year finalist has been an adventure. “I was called to the school to be a part of a surprise baby shower by my students,” she said. “As I walked in the library, I looked around to see that there were many people from the [school] district. As I was questioning why they were at my baby shower/meet-the-baby for my students, I looked up to see a wonderful group of people from Tallahassee. [I was] Still very, very confused. A very nice gentleman started telling my students all about my educational career. As he continued, he let them know that I was now being recognized as one of the 2023 top five finalists for Florida State Teacher of the Year. I immediately burst into tears.”

She said she is incredibly thankful for this opportunity. “My heart felt another level of gratitude as I looked around the room to see some of my students in tears, and others applauding. To put it simply, I felt completely overwhelmed with gratitude,” Whittington added.

While five finalists are selected, the Florida Teacher of the Year program honors the thousands of educators who serve the state’s students. The goals of the Florida Teacher of the Year program include enhancing the stature of teachers and the teaching profession; promoting the importance of quality education and teaching for our future; and inspiring and attracting talented people to become teachers.

As for Whittington’s desire to be an educator, she decided to become a teacher, “because I wanted to follow in my mother's footsteps.”

“She has been a teacher for my entire life,” Whittington said. “I have seen firsthand the impact that she has been able to make on the children that she has been blessed to teach. Mama has a true passion for teaching and working to better the lives of our children. I wanted to make that same impact on the students in our community.”

Her advice for some of Saint Leo University’s recent education graduates: “When you walk into your new classroom, just know that your students already trust you,” she said. “It is your job to allow them to know that they are cared for and that they are safe. I am a true believer that ‘Kids don't learn from people they don't like,’ as Rita Pierson would say. Building a relationship with your students is key to the success of their learning, and yours. Your students will teach you something new every single day. Your college journey has just been completed, but your learning has just begun. Welcome to the family, fellow grads! You are now a lifelong learner.”