When she was in kindergarten, Jennifer Santora knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She wanted to be a teacher, and unlike many children who change their minds multiple times as they grow up, she stuck with it.
“I enjoyed modeling what my teachers used to do,” said Santora, who was named in December as one of four finalists for the School District of Manatee County’s Educator of the Year award. “I used to go home and play school every single day with my little chalkboard, and I really looked up to teachers for what they did.”
She is now a third grade teacher at B.D. Gullett Elementary School.
The other finalists are Faith Bench, a math teacher at Braden River Middle School; Amanda English, a science teacher at Bayshore High School; and Susan Nickerson, a fourth grade teacher at Palmetto Elementary School.
When Santora was announced as a finalist, she said she was blessed, humbled and honored.
“I feel that as teachers, we come to work every day, and we do the hard work for our students,” Santora said. “The payoff usually comes in what we see our children do and how they succeed, but to receive this honor is above and beyond my expectations of why I teach.”
Todd Richardson, Gullett’s principal, said Santora is indicative of what the school’s staff represents.
“She always goes the extra mile,” he said. “She always puts her kids first in everything that she does, which is what we strive to do here.”
As the third grade team leader, Santora leads 11 other third grade teachers, which is the school’s biggest grade team.
“She’s our motivator,” said Barbara Pfeiffer, a third grade teacher. “She’s been our team leader for the last year and a half, which is a huge job, and she keeps everybody on the right path, I would say.”
Richardson said Santora is excellent at communicating with administration about not only what she needs in her classroom but also what her team needs.
Pfeiffer has worked with her all eight years Santora has been at the school and said Santora is a “great friend and colleague.”
Pfeiffer said her enthusiasm and excitement motivates the other teachers.
“She always takes [a student] as is and then manages to build really strong emotion relationships with them,” Pfeiffer said. “That way, she gets the best out of them. She cares about her students. Her parents love her. Her students love her.”
Xavier Baingo, one of Santora’s students, said she is one of the best teachers he’s had.
“She’s really sweet to us and challenges us,” Baingo said. “She makes learning in a way kind of fun. When you’re feeling down, she makes you happy.”
Linzie Hamilton, another of Santora’s students, said her teacher can be serious at times but can also have fun and play around with students.
Whether it’s socially, emotionally or academically, Santora said she enjoys seeing her students progress throughout the year.
Although Santora also has taught fourth grade at Gullett, she said third grade is perfect for her, she said.
“I like teaching this grade level because they’re still sweet, and they’re still impressionable,” she said. “They’re thirsting for learning and knowledge. … I really feel like at this age level I build a really strong classroom family, and I’m able to make a difference.”