LAKE PLACID - At first, she said all she could think was, "Did they really just say my name?"
That was the humbling reaction Cheryl Vermilye, a literacy curriculum resource teacher at Sebring's Woodlawn Elementary School, said she had when it was announced she would be the Highlands County Education Foundation's 2014 "Teacher of the Year."
Following the 7 p.m. ceremony in the Lake Placid High School Commons auditorium, Vermilye stood with the 2014 "School Related Employee of the Year," Monica Germaine, administrative secretary at Avon Park High School. She said she was in awe of her selection, standing with so many deserving teachers and school support staff members.
"Now that was a total shock," said Vermilye, 36, who previously taught second grade advanced academics and joined Woodlawn for the 2012-13 school year. "I wasn't expecting this at all and I'm just thankful that my peers recognized me."
Germaine, who has worked for the School Board of Highlands County since 1990 and as an administrative secretary since 1993, was equally taken aback. She said she just does what she needs to do help keep the system running.
"I can't believe it; I'm still in awe and blessed beyond words," said Germaine, who was accompanied to get her award by Avon Park Principal Tealy Williams. "I would hope I got this award for the love of the school system and my love for the kids."
Among the reasons cited for Vermilye's award is her work coordinating learning fairs, hosting a voluntary program offering teachers a monthly professional development opportunity to make ready-to-use class resources. She has also been awarded over $30,000 in grants for the school since 2005 and regularly shares her grant-writing skills with other educators.
At the ceremony, in front of about 230 guests including family and friends, Highlands County School Board staff, education foundation members, former and retired instructors, county government officials and teacher support personnel, the program began after hors d'oeuvres with a welcome by Wally Cox, Highlands County superintendent of schools, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the district and its nine elementary, four middle and four high schools and approximately 12,300 public school students. There are about 1,600 teachers and employees within the county school district.
Regarding the awards program, which has been held for over 10 years, he said it's now a "tradition" event to honor and support the county's educational professionals.
"I'd just like to congratulate the teachers, support and administration. We thank you. The real winners are the students," he told the audience. "We have very caring staff that takes care of our students year-in and year-out."
The awards began with the announcements of the "Principal of the Year," Lake Placid high's Toni Stivender, who began teaching in Highlands County in 1971, and the "Assistant Principal of the Year," Jeannie Inagawa of Cracker Trail Elementary, who began teaching 12 years ago in Hillsborough County before transferring to Sun 'N Lake Elementary and was voted Florida's first "Outstanding Assistant Principal."
Chet Brojeck, Highlands County Education Foundation president, introduced foundation board members and the 2013 Teacher of the Year, Jessica Thayer, reflected on her experience representing Highlands County. She mentioned eight characteristics that guide the county's educators: hard work, instructional strength, goal-oriented, high-tech, lifelong learners, ambitious, devoted and synergistic.
"We have a family representing Highlands County; you don't have that elsewhere. We all know that," she said.
As of 2012, Highlands County School District was 34th out of 67 Florida school districts in current population and 483rd out of 2,891 other school districts in current population nationwide, according to the National Center for Education.
The 18 "School Related Employees of the Year" were announced by Vivian Waldron, district human resources director and the 18 Teacher of the Year nominees, also selected by Foundation votes from nominations from their peers, were announced by Brenda Longshore, district assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
As each one was called, he or she was escorted by a business sponsor and principal or assistant principal and stood across the stage. After each was called and a brief biography was read and instructional nominees were awarded with $400 and a trophy, and non-instructional nominees got $200 and a trophy before the winners in the two categories were announced.
Vermilye received $5,000 and a trophy and Germaine got $2,500 and a trophy, given out by Cox and Vanessa Hernandez, manager, Midflorida Credit Union, one of the event sponsors.