'She is the pillar of Leesburg HS,' student says about 2018 Florida Teacher of the Year

Tammy Jerkins is mother, wife, Leesburg High School graduate

LEESBURG, Fla. – Humble, joyful, and passionate are just some of the characteristics that colleagues and students use to describe Tammy Jerkins.

One former student describes the Leesburg High School mathematics teacher as "the pillar of Leesburg High School," who he credits for reaching out to him when he transferred from a neighboring county in his high school career.

"How can I give my gratitude and thanks to someone who means so much to me," 2006 Leesburg High School graduate Rodney McIntyre told News 6. "She is the pillar of Leesburg High. I am so happy that she was one of few that reached out to me. She saved my life."

McIntyre was one of the students in her algebra classes, who enjoyed learning from her.

Jerkins also teaches geometry, pre-calculus and college readiness while being active in her community and church.

"She does it (teaching) with joy. She is such a shining example," teacher and colleague Nancy Hunter said.

Hunter and Jerkins are both alumni who have a passion for their students.

"Those of us who graduate from the high school have an allegiance to the school that is hard for others to understand. Tammy's heart is there. She doesn't want to be anywhere else," Hunter said.

Others are appreciative of the time she took to tutor them after school and even in her home.

Jerkins, who was taught at her alma mater since 2004, received the highest honor in the state in July being named the 2018 Florida Teacher of the Year. Jerkins was chosen out of five finalists from an application pool of 73 school districts across the state.

Jerkins said her passion for teaching began when she was young and inspired by her teachers.

"My first-grade teacher, I fell in love with, and I knew that I wanted to be just like her," Jerkins said. "I just knew that is what I wanted to do."

But it was the encouragement of two of her high school math teachers -- Mr. Wagner and Mr. Howard -- who impacted her life by believing in her and encouraging her.

"He saw something in what he called my 'gift' of math, and he encouraged me to follow my dream of teaching," she said.

Jerkins graduated as the school's valedictorian in 1977.

That mentorship encouraged her to study at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then later teach in Georgia before coming back to Leesburg High School in 2004 after raising her sons and daughter.

Teaching in her hometown is something that makes her proud and taking ownership for the school.

"It's her school, and she takes ownership of it, and she does it to make it a better place for everybody: parents, students and those of us who work with her," Hunter said.

When you step into her classroom, one thing is very apparent: Her classroom is cozy and she is organized.

The details in her classroom all set the tone for the students who enter her classroom in the original Leesburg High School building that has been renovated several times since it built in 1927.

"My students all tell me that I am a very happy person. I think that is part of it. I am joyful. I love being here, and this room is my happy place. I love being in the room with my students," Jerkins said about the tone in her classroom.

But for those who have ever sat in a classroom taught by her or worked with her know, she is on fire to get kids learning and encourages those who admittedly tell them that math is not their subject.

It's a skill and discipline that she said, anyone could master. It just takes practice.

"I believe all students can learn any subject they decide to study. It's just a matter of practicing for example if you want to learn an instrument what does it take. It just takes practice. It is the same with math," she told News 6. "If you want to excel you have to practice."

As for her teaching style, she likes to have the students work together as they learn new concepts.

"The students work together in groups for different tasks or even just to practice a skill," she said. Additionally, the discussions about those skills to move that into long term memory.

For those who work with her and are her former students they couldn't be more proud of her, but they already knew how special she is to the community.

"She is through and through one of the most humble, deserving, and honest people to work with. I am honored to consider her friend," Hunter said.

Her inspiration and will to believe the best in her students inspires others to get out and give to their community. That is one thing that McIntyre hopes to do with the community.

"She really affected my life, and it lets me know that I need to be a better person, and because of her I have to do that same thing," he said.

But for Jerkins, she said she is most looking forward to learning from other teachers during the year when she travels across the state.

"Everything I learn I will be bringing back to Leesburg High School," she said.

Jerkins returns to her Leesburg High School classroom for the 2018-2019 school year.