South Walton High School's Joan Kennett has been named Walton County Teacher of the Year for 2017-2018.
"I was so in shock and humbled," said Kennett from her classroom the next day. "I am beyond blessed. It's an honor to represent every teacher and student and that I have the privilege to represent Walton County. I don't know a teacher in Walton County who's not deserving. I had no clue."
One of her prizes is a new Mercedes to drive for a year. In addition to the car she will be driving, Kennett received a dozen red roses and a check for $1,200. This is the county's first year to lease a Mercedes for Teacher of the Year.
"Winning this award is an honor and prestige," said Walton County School Superintendent Russell Hughes.
Hughes convinced ZT Motors of Fort Walton to link arms with the county to honor the new Teacher of the Year with the leased Mercedes.
"Okaloosa County gives their (teacher of the year) a BMW," said Hughes. "I told teachers last year that I wanted to do this. She will be an ambassador for Walton County."
"I have never owned a Mercedes," said Kennett.
Kennett was selected by her peers.
She applied and her application was reviewed by a committee consisting of former Teachers of the Year and members of the Teachers' Union, which selected a final three. The committee's assessment included visiting the classrooms and assessing each finalists' teaching style. Each was scored and the winner selected by numeric value.
"The committee identified that she was a standout," said Hughes. "We made that determination on performance, how kids perform, and teacher/student interaction. She has a 90-percent pass rate."
Hughes said that Kennett will represent the Walton County School District in a lot of different ways. She will have the option of taking a year off and be in a coaching position for other teachers.
Kennett has been teaching biology for 27 years, five years at South Walton. She has also taught in Georgia and Indiana.
"Biology is the story of life," she said. "It's development, it's authentic, it's your beginning and the end. There's always something new. Science and biology is always interesting and leaves you open ended."
Kennett earned her bachelor of science degree from Kennesaw State College and received her gifted credentials from West Georgia State College.
She has been awarded grants from Walton Education Foundation and the National Defense Industrial Association ACCELerator Program to enrich students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
In that realm, Kennett implemented the Lab Coat Award, which is given to students who achieve outstanding science merit by completing and meeting rigorous award criteria.
"The Lab Coats draw students," said Hughes.
As Student Government Association sponsor, Kennett motivates student leaders within the school and community. One of the Student Government projects is the Senior Citizen Prom.
She is actively involved as a teacher mentor and advocate for developing best classroom practices.
In the spring of 2017, Kennett's students scored 97 percent and ranked fifth in the state on the biology state test.
To be considered for State Teacher of the Year, Kennett must now submit a video to the Florida Department of Education. If she wins state she will spend the year traveling.
"She teaches every day and cares about us. She's the best. You can't come in here and not learn," said Josie Bekkers, one of Kennett's students.