Sarasota County School District Teacher of the Year finalists surprised at three schools this week

Dec. 13 event to recognize the winner

Venice Elementary teacher Bethany Burnett is surrounded by students congratulating her on being named Sarasota County Schools Elementary Teacher of the Year Nov. 14. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Teachers at three schools in Sarasota County were surprised on Nov. 13 when they were revealed as the district’s elementary, middle and high school Teachers of the Year and the 2018 Teacher of the Year finalists.

The annual Teacher Tribute Tour team traveled to each school on a bus, a news release notes.

This year’s team included Superintendent of Schools Todd Bowden, School Board members, Education Foundation President Jennifer Vigne and other representatives of the foundation and the school district, past winners and special guests, the release adds.

One of the three finalists will be named the district’s overall Teacher of the Year at the Ignite Education event at the Westin Sarasota on Dec. 13, the release points out.

The first stop for the Teacher Tribute Tour bus was Booker Middle School, the release says, where Superintendent Todd Bowden told students and staff, “You have a teacher who is very special to you and to all of us — she’s the Middle School Teacher of the Year for the whole school district — Ms. Allison Cohen!”

Cohen, who teaches sixth-grade math to students of varying abilities, told the cheering crowd, “I could not do this without the support of our great staff and our volunteers.”

Cohen “integrates English language arts into the math curriculum and presents information in a variety of ways to meet the needs of each student,” the release continues.

“I don’t just teach math, I teach life skills, social skills and job skills. My goal is for all our students to be college- and career-ready,” Cohen said in the release. “I love being here every day — I’m a Booker Tornado for life!”

Cohen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida, has taught for 21 years — all of them with the Sarasota County Schools, the release notes. She has served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Teacher Advisory Council, as mathematics department chair and as curriculum leader at Booker Middle.

“Education is a family tradition,” she said in the release. “My two sisters, a cousin and a niece are all teachers in the district.”

Booker Middle teacher Allison Cohen (middle) shares the spotlight with students Jakiah Mills (left) and Valeria Hernandez after being honored as Sarasota County Schools Middle School Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Next, the bus pulled up to Riverview High School — the second year in a row the tour bus has stopped there. Reigning district Teacher of the Year B.J. Ivey, who teaches and coaches at Riverview, passed the High School Teacher of the Year baton to English language arts teacher Es Swihart, the release points out.

Principal Paul Burns called it “a special day for us at Riverview.” He told the gathered students and staff that the next period was about to start, but that “it’s important to take this moment to celebrate. Having the High School Teacher of the Year two years in a row says a lot about what happens here in our classrooms,” the release adds.

Swihart —whose first name is pronounced like the letter “S” and whose last name is pronounced SWY-hart — said being recognized as the district’s High School Teacher of the Year is “quite an honor. I am shocked and amazed … and overwhelmed!”

Swihart has taught for 11 years, five of them in Sarasota County. She teaches English Literature and “English 1” to Pre-International Baccalaureate students, the release continues. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and theater performance from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in English education from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

She said she is “passionate about teaching, learning and exploring the arts and writing to understand why these modes of expression are so powerful,” the release adds.

“I am drawn to story forms and their influence in any medium — including education, the arts, human relationships, psychology and technology,” Swihart explained in the release. “I believe stories are powerful tools for connection and bettering our understanding of the world and ourselves. I want my students to be comfortable expressing who they are — their authentic selves.”

Riverview High students Samantha Chaulsett (left) and Jakob Dubin (right) celebrate the moment with teacher Es Swihart, who was named Sarasota County Schools High School Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools

The final stop on the tour was Venice Elementary, where Bethany Burnett was named the district’s Elementary Teacher of the Year. Burnett has been a teacher for 26 years, 20 of them in Sarasota County, the release notes. “She teaches fifth-grade inclusion, co-teaching with a colleague to help ensure that the individual needs of all students are met,” the release adds.

Burnett talked about students who are labeled “square pegs” because they do not fit into the “round holes” as some people expect, the release continues. “I look at students who might be labeled as having obsessive-compulsive disorder and help them and their classmates see them as organizers. It’s important to help kids understand who they are and to help them rise above the labels others assign to them.”

She said whenever she hears the phrase “those who can’t, teach” she corrects them. “Those who teach inspire and transform lives. A random act of kindness by a teacher can change the life of a student.”

Burnett holds a bachelor’s degree in specific learning disabilities from Mercer University and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from American Intercontinental University.

The Teacher of the Year program is co-produced by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County and the Sarasota County School District, the release points out. It “is made possible through the funding and support of community partners,” the release adds.

Each of the three finalists will receive a cash award from the Education Foundation.

The overall district Teacher of the Year for 2018 will be named from among the three finalists at Ignite Education: A Celebration Honoring Teachers, a program that will be held at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at the Westin Sarasota. For more information and to purchase tickets visit