Master Teacher Initiative student
a Florida Teacher of the Year finalist

Two butterflies flit above bright blooms in a small garden at Ponce de Leon Elementary School in Clearwater.

“That garden,” principal Thea Saccasyn says, “that’s all Tracy.”

Tracy Staley wrote and received a $2,500 grant to establish an eco-friendly garden complete with a reading bench and plants suitable for Florida’s climate. On a recent weekend, she coordinated with students, family and Ponce staff to build the garden. It’s just one example of how Staley, who teaches fifth-grade science and writing, goes beyond her traditional role.

The drive to go further defines Staley, Pinellas County’s 2011 Outstanding Educator and a finalist for the state Teacher of the Year. She navigates her classroom with a sense of authority combined with a mutual respect and caring that has her students eager to learn. She implements various strategies to keep every student engaged and creates a culturally responsive environment to resolve kids’ problems in and out of school. Some of her success, she says, stems  from skills she’s picked up in the University of Florida Lastinger Center Florida Master Teacher Initiative’s on-the-job master’s program.

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Tracy Staley

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“What she has learned has helped her move her teaching in new directions,” says Vicki Vescio, a UF professor-in-residence at Ponce and Staley’s adviser in the program. For instance, Ponce’s students are very diverse in terms of both socioeconomic background and learning abilities. In a classroom with gifted students, challenged students and other exceptionalities, finding common ground can be difficult; but Staley has learned to improve her craft by valuing her students’ differences.

“You need to be alone to read? That’s okay,” Staley says. “You need to stand up, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It’s just the way you learn.”

This sense of flexibility has led to a comprehensive method in all areas of Staley’s classroom.

“My philosophy in education is really that nothing is separate,” she says. “You can’t be a good scientist if you can’t read. You can’t write up a scientific report if you’re not a good writer. You can’t calculate your data if you’re not a good mathematician, so I try to pull in all of the subjects to give real-world application to my kids.” The multifaceted approach helps her students succeed in other areas, too.

“I don’t get the grunts and groans when they have to write or they have to read,” she says, “because they see a purpose for it.”

Beyond the demands of the curriculum, Staley has taken other cues from the program, Saccasyn says. “I believe Tracy’s coursework in the area of social justice and building a culturally responsive classroom has had a tremendous impact on her as an educator,” she says. “She understands the varying needs of our diverse student population.”

Staley has taken this approach school-wide, developing a whole-child rubric with another UF student in the program that helps teachers place students for the upcoming school year. The rubric uses academic information along with social and emotional indications to make sure each child is in the classroom best suited for his or her specific needs.

“They’re not a test score,” Staley says of Ponce students, “and having the entire faculty look at our kids through that lens is really exciting to me.”

Staley, who expects to graduate next year, says juggling daily classroom activities with a challenging master’s program is a struggle at times – a lot of late-night studying, a lot of frozen dinners. But with the encouragement of her administrators, advisers, and, perhaps most important, her husband, Staley has continued to evolve as an educator.

“Tracy shows her students each and every day that their lives and learning are a priority for her,” Saccasyn says. Whether taking students and families on canoe trips to study ecosystems, organizing a trip to Washington, D.C., or sponsoring the safety patrol, Staley works tirelessly on behalf of the kids. Modeling ongoing education to her students is of utmost importance to her, and receiving her degree is one way to show them that.

“I tell my students, the day you stop learning is the day you die,” she says. “There’s always something more I want to add to my plate.” From pursuing her desire to learn Spanish as a way to communicate better with parents of ESOL students to delving into island culture to learn more about her parents’ homeland of Grenada, it is clear Staley will have no trouble staying busy.

“And Dr. Staley is somewhere in the future,” she says, smiling. “That’s also on my list of things to do.”