Join the celebration as we honor Seminole’s three countywide Teachers of the Year for elementary, middle, and high school. They are all innovative educators, they all bring boundless energy to their classrooms, and remarkably – for the first time ever – they all teach in Lake Mary schools!
Ashley Barnette- High School Teacher of the Year - Lake Mary High
In the 1989 comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, history was brought to life as a teaching tool that, in the end, landed Bill and Ted excellent grades. Ashley Barnette, Seminole County’s High School Teacher of the Year, embraces that concept on a daily basis. She fully understands that students need to experience more than just a lecture. They need to touch, see, and feel what they are studying. Ashley’s background in performing arts fits perfectly with such a lesson plan.
“I am animated and get excited about what I teach,” she says. “I act out things. It’s theatrical, with enthusiasm. I think the kids know that I genuinely care about them, and that I genuinely love history.”
A Lake Mary High graduate who also attended Wilson and Heathrow Elementary schools and Greenwood Lakes Middle School, Ashley has always had a fascination with history. Even her white and fluffy Maltese Pomeranian is named Beauregard, after the prominent Confederate Civil War general.
Over the years, the 31-year-old Lake Mary resident has amassed quite a collection of historical artifacts that she shares with her students, including Henry Clay presidential campaign buttons, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a letter Ashley’s mother received from J. Edgar Hoover, and American flags with significant meaning: one that flew over Pearl Harbor, one from Mount Vernon (home to George Washington), and her grandfather’s flag that he kept in his pocket during World War II. If the Civil War is on the syllabus, students sample hardtack biscuits just like those the soldiers dined on for months at a time. When it’s time to learn about the 1920s, Ashley teaches her class to dance the Charleston.
Her interest in history, which turned into a career teaching 11th-grade Advanced Placement, honors, and standard American history, is thanks to Ashley’s parents.
“When I was a kid, we went on a lot of American history trips together,” Ashley says. They visited historical sites, monuments, and battlefields, and spent time in Washington, D.C. One of Ashley’s favorite outings was a visit to Monticello, the Virginia plantation that was home to Thomas Jefferson.
At first, it appeared Ashley was headed for the footlights instead of the classroom. She was actively involved in the theater at Lake Mary High and went on to study acting at the University of Central Florida. Following graduation in 2006 and armed with a degree in theater, Ashley went to work in the entertainment industry as an actress, a special events coordinator for the 81st Academy Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, and a production assistant with The Jerry Springer Show in Chicago.
“It was cool,” Ashley says, “but it was not for me. I didn’t fit into that lifestyle.” The untimely death of Ashley’s uncle led to deep reflection. She returned home and never looked back. “I realized I wanted to help people and give back to the community. I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’ and it became so clear. I should be a teacher.”
With no formal schooling or training in education, Ashley found the career adjustment difficult, but rewarding. Through trial, error, and peer coaching, Ashley found that open communication and total honesty would become the cornerstones of her classroom.
“I think I offer an honest representation of who I am and what I enjoy,” she says.
The seven-year veteran educator says she has one thing in mind when she prepares for class and creatively bundles her passion for history and the theater – she thinks about her students, her muse.
“I don’t think the kids realize how much they mean to me,” says Ashley. “They teach me so much. They remind me there are a lot of good people in the world. They bring me joy.”
Ashley admits she was taken aback about the announcement that she had been chosen as High School Teacher of the Year.
“I was elated and taken completely by surprise,” she says. “It was honestly the best moment of my life. I’ve met many Seminole County teachers during our professional development programs, and to be recognized in a county of such incredible educators is truly an honor.”
Besides her work in the classroom, Ashley coordinates volunteer opportunities for high schoolers by serving as a co-sponsor for Interact, a branch of the Rotary Club for students. Coming full circle, Ashley, now a certified instructional coach, can assist new teachers as they adjust to their burgeoning careers.
History at Lake Mary High School is undoubtedly in good hands.
Chris Pombonyo- Elementary School Teacher of the Year - Crystal Lake Elementary
There is little wonder why Chris Pombonyo’s peers laud the energy he puts forth to engage his students. His manner of teaching reaches outside of the norm, incorporating his love for the theater and theme design into a classroom in which each child can feel like a star.
"I believe kids should be moving around and engaged as much as possible,” says Chris. “I want them to know they matter. It builds community in the classroom.”
Chris’s classroom resembles a Hollywood premiere, complete with a red carpet entrance, black and red curtains throughout, and black and white 8x10 pictures of each student – also known as Chris’s local celebrities. Around the room, letters light up to spell “Mr. Pombonyo” and signs reading “Reel Good Work” keep the theme going.
“I know they are excited to come to my classroom,” Chris says of his students. “I see it in their faces.”
Teaching a room of 20 first graders does take a bit of ingenuity, and Chris fills the role perfectly. He has been teaching at Crystal Lake Elementary for only two years but has already made an indelible mark on the school and beyond.
And this year, it’s Chris who is basking in the light of celebrity after being named Elementary School Teacher of the Year in Seminole County.
A native of Long Island, New York, Chris knew from an early age that he wanted to teach. His yearbook from fifth grade professed that when he grew up, he wanted to be a teacher. Chris was so captivated by teaching, he made his brother play pretend school when they were kids. Much of that inspiration and drive came from Chris’s mom, who taught pre-school.
“I was always in her classroom, watching her,” Chris remembers. “I didn’t really have a backup career plan.”
In 2008, Chris began his professional journey when he moved to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida, where he earned his B.S. in elementary education with reading and ESOL endorsements. Following graduation, Chris was hired as a fourth-grade teacher at Midway Elementary School for the Arts. Two years later, when Midway’s principal, Kristy Marshall, was transferred to Crystal Lake Elementary, she was so impressed with Chris’s work that she requested he come along.
A background in community theater from New York and a minor in event management at UCF both help Chris create new ways to engage and inspire his students. Knowing full well that their minds need a variety of stimuli, Chris will transform his classroom into other themes beyond Hollywood to coincide with concepts the children are studying at the time. His first-grade class has been turned into a candy shop, a winter wonderland, and a spy lab.
“I spend more time in the classroom than in my home,” laughs the 25-year-old Lake Mary resident, who is currently working toward his master’s degree in education at UCF.
His innovative teaching methods have become so popular, Chris shares his talent and creative ideas with educators and other interested parties nationwide through his Famous in First blog. In one short year, the online forum has gained 10,000 followers via various social platforms. Chris was also asked to be the host of a weekly Web-based program titled Lights! Camera! Teach! on the iTeach TV Network, in which Chris offers professional development to teachers on a voluntary basis. The program is recorded live, using the online video service Periscope, then archived for future viewing. Chris’s energy and passion to assist others goes beyond the classroom, as well. He frequently volunteers time to the Children’s Miracle Network and Second Harvest Food Bank.
Chris was truly honored and excited to be named Elementary School Teacher of the Year, which he recognizes as a reward for all his hard work. But his true return on investment can be found in a first grader’s eyes.
“Seeing a student understand a concept is my reward as a teacher,” Chris explains.
Chris never stops envisioning how he can further engage his kids, all while allowing them to make their own choices. Last year, he secured a grant to fill his classroom with fun wobble seats, couches, and stability balls made for sitting.
“There are no desks and no chairs,” Chris explains. “They have their choice where to sit. It teaches them independence.”
Leslie Antmann - Middle School Teacher of the Year - Markham Woods Middle
"I talk to my kids like the young adults that they are,” says Leslie Antmann, choral director at Markham Woods Middle School. “We talk about things that are real. I think they spend too much time being told what to do.”
Leslie’s down-to-earth approach and innovative programs, coupled with a strong dedication to her profession, have long gained the respect of her students and peers. She has taught at Markham Woods Middle School since the facility opened in 2006. It’s her first and only teaching job since graduation.
Leslie’s teaching philosophy and accomplishments in and out of the classroom led to her recognition as the Middle School Teacher of the Year for Seminole County. Leslie, who earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Florida, was humbled by the announcement.
“I was shocked and super happy,” Leslie says, describing her emotions when a contingent of SCPS leaders entered her classroom to announce she was the Middle School Teacher of the Year. “I am so honored. There are incredible teachers in our county, and to be selected is overwhelming.”
Beyond the day-to-day duties of teaching her children, Leslie was recognized for founding the district-wide Chorus Professional Learning Community, designed to help music teachers develop a standard curriculum. She also co-sponsors the county’s Junior Thespian Group, in which Leslie coaches children in musical theater. Her top-rated choirs also perform frequently throughout Central Florida.
In her classroom, Leslie employs storytelling to make a point, many times using real-life examples featuring her own family, which includes three-year-old Benjamin and Leslie’s husband John, who is the assistant principal at Lawton Chiles Elementary.
“I am honest, truthful, and real with my kids,” Leslie says, noting she sets high expectations in an effort to assure each student reaches his or her full potential. “Kids are pretty good at seeing through you if you are putting on an act.”
Born in Gainesville, Leslie has lived in Seminole County since she was five years old, and music has always been a major part of her life. At Spring Lake Elementary, she was in the bell choir; in middle school she joined the vocal chorus. At Lake Mary High, Leslie studied music theory, was a member of the choir, and became involved in community theater. She also loved attending local rock band concerts and musicals.
“I have been singing since I can remember,” Leslie says. “I loved being around music, it didn’t matter which kind.”
By the time college rolled around, Leslie pondered a change and set her sights on pursuing something other than music. However, after being persuaded to apply to the School of Music at the UF College of the Arts, she realized she had found her true calling: teaching.
“The first time I got in front of a group of students, I was hooked,” Leslie remembers.
Students, parents, and colleagues are the collective beneficiaries of Leslie’s chosen career path, mainly because her programs go beyond simply teaching music classes and three levels of chorus. Leslie helps foster confidence in her kids and instills values they can take with them as they grow. Leslie’s “Bigs and Littles” mentoring program, for example, successfully pairs beginners, who are mostly sixth graders, with the older music students. She uses a questionnaire to match those with similar interests to help ensure they are compatible.
“A lot of them have gone on to high school and are still friends,” Leslie says. “The program travels beyond my classroom and middle school.”
A testament to Leslie’s popularity, her average class size is 50, with a total enrollment of approximately 250 students a day. Don’t forget, music is an elective class. Leslie’s middle schoolers want to be part of the magic this exceptional choral director has created.
Maybe that’s because Leslie not only understands how to communicate with her kids and treat them as individuals, but the 33-year-old also established a safe haven within ther four walls of her room where students can feel comfortable and at ease.
“We as a chorus program are a family,” Leslie says. “We may not get along all the time, but we love each other. In middle school, it is easy to get lost and pulled in the wrong direction. My kids are encouraged to be unique, to be themselves, and to do their own thing.”
And The Winner Is…
With three incredible finalists for the school district’s overall Teacher of the Year award, SCPS leaders faced a nearly impossible choice. But there can be only one educator who represents Seminole County for statewide Teacher of the Year recognition.
This year’s honor goes to Crystal Lake Elementary’s Chris Pombonyo
Chris was named the countywide Teacher of the Year at a gala event for all the district’s top teachers in March. Besides a number of prizes and awards, Chris also won the free use of a new car for the next year. He’ll use the complimentary ride to criss-cross the state representing SCPS and his fellow teachers as he spreads the word about the world-class education happening in Seminole County every day.
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