Leah Bender, Marion County’s 2022 Golden Apple Teacher of the Year, is known for being a caring educator and mentor.
Leilani Cruz can’t sing enough praises about her former teacher Leah Bender, Marion County’s 2022 Golden Apple Teacher of the Year. When introducing Bender at the Public Education Foundation of Marion County’s gala on January 15th at the Reilly Arts Center, Cruz told an emotional story of how Bender helped her through a difficult personal situation. She went on to say Bender did everything “from buying clothes for students to be able to present their advanced placement research presentations dressed nicely to being an amazing Take Stock in Children mentor.”
Bender, a graduate of the University of Phoenix, is in her eighth year at West Port High School, where she teaches AP English Literature and Composition along with Capstone Seminar and Research classes.
Despite those high-level activities, Bender also makes time for nonstructured interaction with her students.
“My classroom is a safe place for them to express themselves,” she explains. “It’s not just about academics. They feel safe enough that they can be funny and say things off the cuff and they’re not go-ing to get in trouble. Once you create that environment, magic happens.”
Recalling the day the selection committee came to her classroom and presented her with a Golden Apple, Bender says she suddenly became speechless.
“It was the first time I was nominated,” Bender shares. “My students were all cheering. I was very happy that my colleagues at West Port trusted me enough to go forth with this and that I was good enough to compete. I had no idea that I was going to win. ”
The 2021 Rookie Teacher of the Year, Emma Dingman, of Emerald Shores Elementary School, was part of the 10-member selection committee.
“When observing her, I noticed she was teach-ing rather than instructing,” relates Dingman. “Leah really seemed invested in making sure she was thorough on the topic being discussed. When she moved into smaller group instruction with her class, I really noticed she showed skills in communication, listening, collaboration, empathy and patience. You could see the love her students had for her as well as what she was teaching. It was an honor being invited into her classroom.”
The daughter of a Pennsylvania school teacher, Bender is married to Roman Bender, who teaches geometry at West Port. But Leah didn’t initially pursue a teaching career.
“I started out breeding and training quarter horses for 10 or 12 years. It’s funny that I ended up in Ocala,” Bender says with a laugh. “When the economy tanked, I went back to school and finished my degree in education. It turns out training horses is a lot like working with teenagers. They both take patience.”
Along with the title, Bender was presented with a paid three-year lease for a 2022 Kia Soul, provided by Jenkins Auto Group. Bender also was invited to join the foundation’s Golden Apple Academy.
The invitation was extended to all five Golden Apple winners and to Melanie Kimball, the 2022 Rookie Teacher of the Year, declares Meghan Magamoll, executive director of the foundation. Other Golden Apple recipients included Beth Abel, Lake Weir Middle School; Jennifer Bourque, Harbour View Elementary School; Joanne Houghton, Fort McCoy School; and Hannah Whitston, Madison Street Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.
“The purpose is to have a cohort of outstanding educators who then can be a part of innovating and encouraging their peers,” Magamoll notes. “They also serve as advocates and a community voice to promote public education. They’re involved in the planning of the annual gala and the selections pro-cess for the new teachers of the year.”
Bender is thrilled to be part of that elite group.
“It’s a nice camaraderie,” she offers. “I’ll be able to meet with these ladies and gentlemen and pick their brains. It solidifies that what we do is important. We all have a hand in making these kids’ lives a little bit better.”
Because of Bender’s win, West Port will be the first school to display a gold life-size horse, painted by Ocala multimedia artist Gene Hotaling, and donated by Diane Palmer in memory of her husband, the late Whit Palmer, one of the original board members of the Public Education Foundation.
Meanwhile, Bender has already submitted a competition packet for the 2023 Florida Golden Apple Teacher of the Year. The state winner will then go on to the national event.
Marion County’s Golden Apple Teacher recognition program was started in 1991 to honor and reward excellence in teaching, notes Magamoll, who co-hosted the gala along with Kevin Christian, director of public relations for Marion County Public Schools.
“Being a part of this experience was overwhelmingly emotional,” Magamoll shares. “I honestly felt so much pride for our teachers, what they’re doing every day and their love and devotion to their students. It was a privilege to be a part of celebrating them.” OS