'It's about the students': Siegel Academy's Ashley Brannon is Polk's 2022 Teacher of the Year

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Ashley Brannon, a special education curriculum coach at Karen M. Siegel Academy, was named 2022 Teacher of the Year during the Polk County Public Schools Inspire Awards at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland on Wednesday.
Ashley Brannon, a special education curriculum coach at Karen M. Siegel Academy, was named 2022 Teacher of the Year during the Polk County Public Schools Inspire Awards at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland on Wednesday.

LAKELAND — Polk County Public Schools honored their very best Thursday evening, naming Karen M. Siegel Academy special education curriculum coach Ashley Brannon as the 2022 Teacher of the Year and Rochelle School of the Arts physical education paraeducator Tiffany Berrien as the School-Related Employee of the Year.

"I feel so blessed to be a part of such a wonderful community and school board, and I wouldn’t be the person I am without my family and amazing administration and my co-workers who support me,” Brannon said after the announcement at an award ceremony truncated by COVID-19. “But we know it’s not about us — it’s about the students. They turn what would be just a job into a lifelong passion... we love them like they’re our own.”

Brannon, 32, works with some of the most profoundly disabled students in Polk County, some of whom can’t speak or are confined to wheelchairs.

“I knew from the second I started in special education that I was home,” Brannon said following the ceremony and moments before she got behind the wheel of the new Ford Focus she was awarded from Lakeland Automall. “It’s incredible to see what these students can accomplish, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Polk County Public School district and school officials surprised Karen Siegel Academy special education curriculum coach Ashley Brannon, center, late last year when she was named a finalist for the 2022 Teacher of the Year.  She won the award Thursday night.
Polk County Public School district and school officials surprised Karen Siegel Academy special education curriculum coach Ashley Brannon, center, late last year when she was named a finalist for the 2022 Teacher of the Year. She won the award Thursday night.

During her speech, she thanked her colleagues for getting up each day to give the students the exceptional education they deserved.

“They’re so capable and so creative and they just want the chance to show that to the world,” Brannon said. “May we always give them that chance and the confidence to be themselves.”

Superintendent Frederick Heid said when he went to the school to announce that Brannon had been named a finalist, she didn’t pay too much attention to all the extra adults in her special education classroom.

“She gravitated toward the children in the room,” Heid said.

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Principal Maggie Reynolds said in a video shown during the ceremony that when she and her team interviewed Brannon for the job six years ago, they felt her kind heart.

“Once you put her in the room with the students, she immediately just lights up, and it's not something that you can fake,” Reynolds said. “The students know if you're not being authentic with them, and that's why they're so drawn to her.”

In addition to the car, Brannon received a $5,000 check from MidFlorida Credit Union.

Tiffany Berrien, a physical education paraeducator at Rochelle School of the Arts, was 2022 School- Related Employee of the Year on Thursday night.
Tiffany Berrien, a physical education paraeducator at Rochelle School of the Arts, was 2022 School- Related Employee of the Year on Thursday night.

Berrien received a check for $2,500 from MidFlorida, along with $500 from Valley Bank.

Berrien has spent four years as a P.E. paraeducator at the K-8 Rochelle School of the Arts.

She incorporates things she learned as a college and semi-pro basketball player, coaching Rochelle’s girls and boys basketball teams.

“My model is ‘student first, athlete second’ 'cause I've been in their shoes before and I know what it takes now that I'm older and mature,” Berrien said in a video produced by the district’s office of communications. “So I just try to instill in them that it's fun to be a kid, it's fun to go to school, it’s fun to be around your family. The sports is just an extra tool. I just like to love on them, just be a good mentor, and instill leadership life lessons — something that they could take with them the rest of their life.”

Along with coaching duties, she tutors students in their lessons and teaches them how to be good citizens. She also takes the time to talk to and learn about each student.

P.E. teacher Raelynn Sheffield said Berrien wants students to understand that it’s important to honor their families.

"She tries to get that mentality of, like, it's not just about you, it's about your last name, not your first name, and I think that's really something that maybe they're not used to hearing,” Sheffield said. “They're all about me, me, me, and she's like, ‘No, step back. It's about your family. It's about your grades, and then it's about what you want to do and what you want to accomplish.”

Principal Julie Ward said in the video that Berrien helps anywhere on campus she is needed — a tall order as COVID has been keeping teachers home to recover or quarantine and paraeducators are often asked to fill in as substitutes.

“She always does it with a smile on her face and she's always willing to help out,” Ward said. “If she has to step into a classroom to assist, she is welcomed by the kids and everybody is always so glad to see her.”

Rochelle student Kennedy Davenport said she knows Berrien really cares about her and her classmates.

“She makes me feel good about myself; she makes me want to try harder,” Davenport said. “She really encourages me to do my best and do better at things. She's a really good person, and I love her personality. I really do, and she's a very important person to me.”

Polk County 2022 Teacher of the Year Ashley Brannon, right, gets a hug from last year's winner, Maude Graham, Thursday night.
Polk County 2022 Teacher of the Year Ashley Brannon, right, gets a hug from last year's winner, Maude Graham, Thursday night.

Berrien will also receive a special ring from Herff-Jones.

She and Brannon will now compete for the title of Florida Teacher of the Year and Florida School-Related Employee of the Year.

Horizons Elementary School’s Amy Heiser-Meyers was also honored Thursday evening as 2021-22 principal of the year and Floral Avenue Elementary’s Tammy Ruhl as the assistant principal of the year.

Just before Heid announced the winners, he told the audience – both in person and online – that after listening to the videos of all the finalists and visiting their schools in the past few months, he was humbled and proud to be their superintendent.

“If you have not been inspired tonight by these 14 amazing individuals, there’s simply nothing that will ever move you,” Heid said. “My Grinch heart has grown at least 10 times tonight. This is an amazing example — and just that, just an example — of the countless individuals who work in our buildings and serve our students every day.”

Teacher of the Year Finalists:

Jennifer Campbell — Reading teacher, Lake Gibson High

Robynn Hamrick — Kindergarten teacher, Davenport Elementary

Lindsey Hanger — English teacher, Bartow High/International Baccalaureate/Summerlin Academy

Kailyn Reynolds-Keller — Physical education (PE) teacher, R. Clem Churchwell Elementary in Lakeland

Tracy Single — LEA facilitator, Scott Lake Elementary in Lakeland

Kent Viles — ESE teacher, Lake Region High

School-Related Employee Finalists:

Sandra Alls — School nurse, Davenport Elementary

Betty Goldwire — ESE paraeducator, Southwest Middle in Lakeland

Jacquelyn Mulford — Finance secretary, Auburndale High

Diana Tinker — Paraeducator, Floral Avenue Elementary

Tracy Walling — Principal’s secretary, Eagle Lake Elementary

John Winghart — School safety guardian, Brigham Academy, Winter Haven

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Siegel Academy special education teacher is Polk's Teacher of the Year