Christine Fernandez named Marion County’s top teacher

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Ocala Star-Banner | by Joe Callahan | January 22, 2021

Christine Fernandez, a Shady Hill Elementary School kindergarten and first-grade MCPSonline teacher who uses puppets to engage her class, was named Marion County’s 2021 Golden Apple Teacher of the Year on Friday.

Fernandez was honored at 8:35 p.m. Friday during the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala. With the honor, she will receive a three-year lease on a 2021 Hyundai Sonata from Jenkins Auto Group.

Fernandez thanked her husband, Tony, and sons, Michael and Matthew, “for putting up with all those voices that I have done throughout the years.”

Christine Fernandez, MCPSonline kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Shady Hill Elementary School, reacts as she was named 2021 Teacher of the Year at the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala on Friday night. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2021
Christine Fernandez, MCPS online kindergarten and first-grade teacher, at Shady Hill Elementary School, reacts as she was named 2021 Teacher of the Year at the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala on Friday night. Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner

“I apologize for the kindergarten voice (that) sort of comes home with me sometimes,” she said. “And also I want to thank all the teachers that I have come across. Through the years, each and every one of them have inspired me to be the teacher that I am today.”

The Public Education Foundation of Marion County, which sponsors the event, held the program at the Webber Center at the College of Central Florida due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

The event, which usually draws more than 550 people, was scaled back to about 50 people. Only the five veteran finalists, the rookie teacher of the year, last year’s veteran and rookie winners and a few other guests were allowed to attend.

This was the first year that all 100-plus rookie and veteran nominees, and their guests, were not allowed to attended the gala, usually held at the Circle Square Cultural Center at the On Top of the World retirement community.

The rookie and veteran nominees were given goodie bags to take home so that they could watch the event online at home.

School District spokesman Kevin Christian and foundation Director Judi Zanetti again emceed the event, which was broadcast live on YouTube. They introduced all veteran and rookie nominees by school and honored them with photos on YouTube.

Though the event was much smaller, Zanetti said, the foundation wanted to make sure that it honored the heroes in masks. 

“What is the same is our commitment to celebrate our teachers,” Christian added.

It was announced at the event that Zanetti will soon retire after serving 14 years as a Marion County teacher, eight years as a school board member and more than eight years as the foundation director.

Christian, who received his own special apple for emceeing the event for 20 years, gave Zanetti a glass apple for severing nine years at the foundation.

Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett also saluted all the nominees and thanked all the 3,348 teachers in the district.

“This year teachers have gone above and beyond,” Gullett said. “They have been more creative, resourceful, and certainly more resilient, than ever. Our teachers heeded the call this year, and have continued to adapt in an unprecedented time.”

Gullett said she was grateful for their service and continuing “to meet the needs of each and every child.”

“Congratulations and thank you all,” she said.

Tony Fernandez hugs his wife, Christine, an MCPSonline kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Shady Hill Elementary School, was named 2021 Teacher of the Year at the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala on Friday night. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2021

Tony Fernandez hugs his wife, Christine, an MCPSonline kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Shady Hill Elementary School, named Teacher of the Year at the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala on Friday night. Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner

Each finalist was introduced by one of their students, whose introductions were pre-recorded and shared via video. Each veteran finalist gave their speeches live.

Along with Fernandez, the other veteran teacher finalists, in alphabetical order, are: Daphne Butler, North Marion Middle School; Christopher Lanza, Ward-Highlands Elementary School; Heather Nesbitt, North Marion High School; and Tina Otero, West Port High School.

Fernandez said during her speech that “teaching during this time of uncertainty has changed our mindsets on how we educate our students and meet their needs.”

“Whether in the classroom or online, we have had to adapt our teaching techniques and approaches,” she noted. “After 30 years of teaching kindergarten, I never thought I would question myself on how I was going to keep a class full of 5- and 6-year-olds engaged and learning. But then Spring of 2020 came, and, well, you know the rest.”

Fernandez wrote in her portfolio, which was submitted as part of her application, that evidence “suggests that academic achievement in the first five years of school is built on a foundation of children’s social/emotional skills.”

Fernandez quoted John Quincey Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

Committee members scored every portfolio submitted by the 50-plus veteran nominees. The committee narrowed the list to about 15, some of whom were interviewed. Of those, several were observed in the classroom, and then the committee chose five finalists.

Two weeks ago, officials named Emma Dingman as the 2021 Rookie Teacher of the Year. Dingman is an Emerald Shores Elementary School pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teacher.

A rookie teacher is one with three or fewer years of experience. A veteran is a teacher with more than three years of experience.

A second committee narrowed the 50 rookie nominees to about a dozen, who were interviewed. The top several were observed in the classroom, with Dingman receiving the top honor.

In her speech at the gala, Dingman said she seeks “to educate with excellence.”

“My goal is to educate the whole child in light of their individual and developmental needs so then they cannot only become a lifelong learner, but also make a positive contribution to society,” she said.

Euan Hunter, a Vanguard chemistry teacher and the 2020 veteran teacher of the year, and Elizabeth Rockey, a Saddlewood Elementary School educator and 2020 rookie of the year, also spoke at the event.

Featured image: Christine Fernandez’s son, Mike, center, breaks down in tears after his mom, MCPSonline kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Shady Hill Elementary School, was named Teacher of the Year at the 31st annual Golden Apple Gala on Friday night. Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner