Marion County Public Schools announces finalists for Teacher of the Year 

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Posted January 8, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette 

Marion County Superintendent Diane Gullett and a group of school board members showed up unannounced at five teachers’ classrooms on Friday to surprise them with Golden Apples as a reward for being a finalist for Marion County 2021 Teacher of the Year.

Heather Nesbitt (North Marion High), Daphne Butler (North Marion Middle), Christine Fernandez (Shady Hill Elementary), Christopher Lanza (Ward-Highlands Elementary) and Tina Otero (West Port High) all received their Golden Apples. Additionally, Emma Dingman, a voluntary pre-kindergarten teacher at Emerald Shores Elementary, was honored as the county’s 2021 Rookie Teacher of the Year.

All finalists for 2021 Teacher of the Year have had at least four years of classroom experience.

Nesbitt teaches agriculture science at North Marion High. This is her fourth year in the district and her fifth year as a teacher overall.  

Butler is an intensive reading teacher at North Marion Middle. Her career stretches over 10 years, and she has taught in the district since 2014.  

Fernandez, who teaches both kindergarten and first grade, started teaching in the district in 2013 as part of her three decades of teaching experience.  

Lanza began teaching in the district in 2005. A media specialist at Ward-Highlands, he is an instructor for media production classes and computer-based literacy courses. He has been teaching for 21 years. 

Otero is an English teacher at West Port. She has been teaching since 2008 and has been in the MCPS system since 2010.    

All six teachers, along with dozens of other school-based teachers of the year, will be featured during a live event on Jan. 22, at the Webber Center on the College of Central Florida campus in Ocala. The event will be broadcast live at 7 p.m. on the Marion Education Channel and online at

Marion County’s 2021 Teacher of the Year also will win a new car compliments of Jenkins Auto Group. 

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