In 2006, Tara Klink was the valedictorian of the Apalachicola High School graduating class, and Heather Lee was the salutatorian.
Seventeen years later, the two young women have been named Teachers of the Year, Klink for the entire district after being selected the top teacher at Franklin County Schools, and Lee, now married to husband Eric Polous, as the top teacher at the Apalachicola Bay Charter School.
Klink, 34, did not always intend to embark on a teaching career. After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2011 from the University of West Florida, she worked for the Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for five years.
During that time she began coaching volleyball at Franklin County High School, and for all but one year of the past decade, has been in that role.
“I came back home to be a biologist, I wanted to help protect the bay,” she said. “But once I got involved with the kids in volleyball, I felt I was making more impact in my two hours a day after work.
“It (teaching) is just a very fulfilling job and that has been all the difference,” Klink said. “I’m very proud to be from Franklin County. I love being able to serve this community specifically.”
Since she already had a bachelors, Klink needed only to take a series of exams to begin teaching science at FCHS in 2015 and become certified in biology and earth/space science.
With three years to work under a temporary license, she completed coursework under a crossover program for full licensure.
Klink has her sights set now on entering administration, as she just passed her Florida educational leadership exam and is about to complete a masters in educational leadership.
During her years of teaching, she’s taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade science, and at the high school level marine science, biology, environmental science and math for college readiness and currently forensic science.
With forensics, the students learn about fingerprints, blood, evidence, ballistics, even motive, she said.
“It’s kind of a murder mystery class,” said Klink. “Everybody’s a little interested in it so it’s easy to keep their attention.”
The class recently conducted autopsies on fetal pigs. “We ended with a funeral for our pigs,” she said. “It was touching.”
Among her many roles, which have included the homecoming and graduation committees, Klink is president of the Franklin County Teachers Association, a role she readily admits contributed to her initial selection as secondary school teacher of the year.
The final selection as the district winner, from among Polous, who teaches first grade at ABC School, and Lacey Hamm, Lacey Hamm who as elementary guidance counselor was the primary school teacher of the year at Franklin County Schools, was made by an impartial committee of educators from outside the district.
“I think that my work with the teacher union helped me become noticed and elected and generally well-liked among teachers, as I am constantly looking out on their behalf,” Klink said, noting that the union represents about 70 percent of the teachers at the school.
“I think there are a lot of teachers and educators right now putting a lot of care and effort into the job,” she said. “I am honored to be noticed among them.
“There are so many expectations piled on teachers so I understand them,” Klink said. “One of the reasons I’m taking on this educational leadership is that I want to have a broader impact outside of my classroom.”
Klink said that a strong partnership with parents is needed to make education work. “The most important thing parents can do is value education in the home. It makes such a difference in kids’ lives,” she said.
“Kids would take it more seriously, if parents make it plain that you have to respect your teacher, not blow it off like an option or treat it like a babysitter,” Klink said. “You can tell the kids who come from homes where an emphasis is put on education. They are dedicated, and there’s a difference in their drive. To a point teachers can only do so much.”
At a banquet set for April 20, hosted by the Franklin County Educational Foundation, also honored will be the district’s Support Staff of the Year, Brittany Pichardo. She serves as the front office receptionist for the Franklin County School and is in her second school year on campus.
“I enjoy connecting with families to provide information and resources and love to welcome them as they visit campus,” she said. “Interacting with the students first thing in the morning is my favorite part of the day. I get the chance to tell them good morning and remind them to have a great day.”
Sarah Ard, a second grade paraprofessional, was named ABC School Support Person of the Year. Annie Rebecca Banks was named the Support Employee of the year for the Franklin County Learning Center.
Robert Gorecki, who teaches sixth grade science and the eighth grade elective life science, is the Rookie Teacher of the Year at Franklin County Schools.