Joanne Wright, pictured with her class at Safety Harbor Middle School, is up for the Pinellas County Educator of the Year Award.
Safety Harbor, Florida -- Would you rather be able to fly, or talk to animals?
That's a legitimate question in Joanne Wright's sixth grade reading class at Safety Harbor Middle School. It goes along with the students' reading, and aims to teach debating skills and confidence.
Her unique approach is one of the reasons her students say she deserved to win the Pinellas County Educator of the Year Award this week. Wright, who has been teaching for about a decade, was up against five other teachers for the award this year. She also won the Fan Favorite award, based on votes from the public.
"I enjoy the greater good, the final ultimate goal," Wright says. "And to know I'm helping with that is amazing to me."
When asked why Wright deserved to win the honor, her kids all wanted a chance to talk.
"I'm more confident in here. In other classes, I'm a bit more shy, but in here, I feel like my own independent personality is accepted," sixth grader Jessica Morris said. "It's like instead of two sides to a coin, she has three or four because she's just the kind of perfect teacher I needed."
"She's like gold to me. I couldn't have a better reading teacher," said sixth grader Liam Walsh.
Wright is from South Africa. She worked at a ski resort and on sailboats before finding her calling as a teacher.
"It's just humbling to be a small part of their lives and their journeys and this is the least boring job in the entire world," she laughed.
She encourages Socratic circles during her classes, in which students read together and debate, discuss, and answer questions while also getting ready for the FCAT.
On the other side of Wright's classroom is what she calls "philosophical chairs," where that debate is occurring over whether students would rather have the ability to fly or talk to animals.
In the front of the room, a third group of students is using a Smartboard, incorporating technology into reading comprehension.
"It helps with modern day young minds because a lot of us use iPhones, iPads, smartphones," said sixth grader Courtney Ulin.
The groups are chosen randomly so that everyone learns to get along and respect diverse opinions.
"I want them to take how to function as a society, as an adult in society, out of this class with them," Wright said.
As part of the prize for Educator of the Year, Wright gets to watch a Lightning game from a luxury box. She says she wants to take as many other teachers with her as she can.