WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Amy Pantano caught the teaching bug by accident.
As a teenager, she said, she was unmotivated and simply chose the profession because she figured it would be relatively easy and that she would have regular hours and summers off.
But, Pantano found out, she was wrong on all counts. Teaching is challenging, she said; she works 10- to 11-hour days and sometimes on the weekends. But something interesting happened along the way — Pantano fell in love with teaching. And 11 years later, Pantano, a fifth-grade teacher at Kernersville Elementary School, was named the teacher of the year for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on Thursday morning.
“There are so many amazing teachers in this school (and throughout the school system),” she said after learning of the honor in a surprise announcement marked by balloons and a Peace Lily delivered to her by a group including her principal, Rebecca Carter; Superintendent Beverly Emory; district and school officials; and school board members. “To be considered is an honor. To be in the top four (finalists) is crazy. … I’m floating right now.”
Her students nearly crushed her with hugs, and Pantano was visibly emotional. She later described the moment as surreal.
“She’s the real deal,” Carter said. “She’s brilliant, caring, fun-loving and relatable. She has it all. She is the total package.”
Pantano said she views her passion and dedication as part of the job and are traits she sees in other teachers, including her husband, Frank Pantano, who quit his job as a patent lawyer because he saw how much his wife loved being in the classroom. He now teaches at Atkins Academic/Technology High School.
“I can’t expect children to work to their potential if I don’t work to mine,” she said. “Educators today are the example for our children, and we need to demonstrate a life-long love of learning and a desire to constantly better ourselves if that’s the kind of people we want our children to become. That’s the true definition of a professional educator.”
Gary Cone, principal at Paisley IB Magnet School, was a member of the committee that selected Pantano. He was named the school system’s principal of the year in October.
Cone said Pantano has compassion for her students and excellent communication skills. The committee also loved her philosophy on teaching, which focuses on the needs of each individual student, Cone said.
Pantano said that she really started to fall in love with teaching while she was a student teacher at a middle school in Kutztown, Pa. She had a mentor who gave her the freedom to experiment in the classroom, she said.
“If I’m bored, they’re bored,” she said.
She then spent two years at 13 th & Green Elementary School in Reading, Pa., where she said she learned the value of teaching to a diverse student population. Pantano said she came away with the importance of teaching to the needs of each student.
Carter said that Pantano has a gift for reaching students. Students in Pantano’s class have an unforgettable experience, Carter said.
Brianna Mendez, 12, certainly agrees.
“She always tells us never to give up,” Mendez said. “She’s an awesome teacher. She inspires me sometimes when I don’t think I can do it.”
The Teacher of the Year Award is sponsored by Flow Honda, which gives the winner a one-year lease of a new vehicle. Pantano will represent Forsyth County at the regional Teacher of the Year competition.