By B.C. Manion
Kindergarten teacher Shelby Baldree recently received a huge surprise when Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia dropped by her school to give her the We Deliver award for the teacher’s outstanding work.
Besides a celebration that included silly string and noisemakers, the Land O’ Lakes woman received a $10,000 check from Hillsborough’s education foundation.
Baldree, who received 15 nominations for the award, was chosen from 188 district employees who were recommended. She is still overwhelmed by the honor.
Baldree’s classroom at Hammond Elementary in Odessa has hundreds of books tucked in plastic bins. Writing samples are posted proudly on walls. There are words and letters everywhere.
This is a place where children write daily, and where they vie for a chance to read the stories they’ve composed aloud.
When they arrive each fall, some students are already reading. Others don’t know the alphabet. When they leave Baldree’s classroom, they’re ready for first grade and beyond — all of them.
“There is not a child who crosses her threshold that is not successful in the end,” said Hammond Principal Lynn Rattray.
The teacher stands for her students, Rattray added. “You tangle with her about her kids, you’re probably going to lose.”
The key, Baldree said, is getting to know each child and their educational needs.
“We do have varying backgrounds,” Baldree said.
There’s no cookie-cutter approach to teaching, Baldree said. “Sometimes you have to change in midlesson to accommodate all of the different needs. Daily, I’m changing up things.”
Sometimes, she has to make things more challenging; other times she must go over the lesson again.
“It’s nothing you can learn in a textbook,” said Baldree, who has been teaching for 17 years. “It is experiences, hands-on, with children. It is spending time watching them and talking with them. That is how I get to know my students on a deeper level, and that is how I believe I reach them.”
When students are struggling, Baldree uses her breaks to give them extra help.
Baldree also likes to keep lessons real for her kids. She wants children to see the connection between what they learn and the rest of their lives.
When they’re learning about finance, for instance, she’ll talk to them about money they’ll earn on their jobs one day or when they get an allowance. Then they talk about using it to go shopping.
When they’re learning how to tell time, she brings that into their world, too. She’ll tell them, “You have to know how to tell time. You’re going to want to show up to your soccer game on time.”
Writing is such an essential skill, Baldree said, and she wants her students to understand how they can use it.
“If they want to express how they’re feeling, they can write about it,” Baldree said. “If they want to inform someone about maybe an animal that they’ve learned about and they’re excited about it, they can write a book about it. If there’s something that’s a life lesson they want to share with others, they can create a play about it.”
The teacher said she loves teaching kindergarten because she knows it is a level where she can make a true difference.
“If I do give that child — no matter what their ability — the opportunity to succeed in a room with other, typical peers, then I know just from experience that that child is going to be successful. Period,” Baldree said.
She knows she could not be successful without the help of the children’s parents. They work together to help children succeed, she said.
“I would not be the teacher I am without parent support,” said Baldree, who added sometimes she has to the bearer of “not-so-good” news. But when she does, she said, she always has strategies ready.
Parents who nominated Baldree for the award waxed on about her skill and compassion, expressing gratitude for the work she has done with their children. They noted she often goes above and beyond, attending dance recitals and soccer games while staying connected with their children long after they leave the teacher’s classroom.
For Baldree, it’s all about the kids.
“The kids are why I come to work,” Baldree said. “I just love what I do.
“I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in kindergarten,” she continued, recalling the first day she arrived in Miss Banfield’s classroom at Lutz Elementary.
“Even though I’m 40 years old, her face is in my mind,” Baldree said. “She was so passionate, and so caring and so loving. That inspired me.
“That was my first school experience,” said Baldree, who now lives with her husband, Jason, and son, Jason Jr., in Pasco County.
“I didn’t want to go to school, but as soon as I set foot in that room and felt love (and) I knew that was where I was meant to be.”
She still feels a kindergarten classroom is her place, but now she’s the one welcoming children.
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