TAVARES — Anthony Ritter was speechless when School Superintendent Susan Moxley walked into his classroom to announce that he was one of three finalists for Lake County Teacher of the Year.

"We have come today because you have a special teacher," Moxley said to the students watching with interest.

"Teacher of the Year," Ritter's student exclaimed with her hands up.

Ritter said he was very surprised to receive the honor. He stood quietly, taking it all in, as educators and the superintendent congratulated him.

But when it comes to describing his teaching, Ritter is not quiet. He is animated and talkative.

He said he loves teaching because he gets to see his students succeed and master concepts.

Ritter, who teaches Gifted Language Arts at Eustis Heights Elementary and robotics, said what keeps him going every day is the students.

“Watching a student that learns to write a computer code at such an early age: it is amazing,” he said.

In particular, Ritter said he likes working with students in small groups.

“Some of these students don’t have the best home life, role model or encouragement at home,” he said. “They spend the majority of time (at school) with an adult whose sole purpose is to encourage them and help them achieve.”

Chad Frazier, principal at Eustis Heights Elementary, said Ritter is an asset to the school, the community and the children.

“He gives over and beyond of his time for our robotics team who wound up the second elementary school team in the state and have already qualified for state again this year,” he said. “He spends a lot of his own personal time working with our students at our school to teach them programming and robotics.”

Jessica Simmons, who teaches students with autism spectrum disorder at Gray Middle School and Tammy Jerkins, a secondary mathematics teacher at Leesburg High School, share the same passion for their students. The two were also honored today as finalists for Lake County Teacher of the Year.

When Moxley surprised Simmons to tell her the news that she was a finalist, she began to cry.

A teacher for more than six years, Simmons said her students become part of her family.

“I think the best part about teaching is I get to get up and go to work and do something that I love to do,” she said. “It is so natural to work with this population and to see them succeed. When I know I played a role in that child’s life: the rewards go far beyond a paycheck.”

Pam Chateauneuf, principal at Gray Middle School, said she was proud to be Simmon’s principal.

“She is an amazing teacher with a heart of gold,” she said. “She instills confidence and excellence in her students on a daily basis. Her positivity is so contagious it makes your day brighter. I can’t say enough good things about her as a person or as a professional.”

Like Simmons and Ritter, Jerkins was also in disbelief when she learned she was a finalist.

“I am so honored for Leesburg High School,” she said. “I am a graduate of Leesburg High School and want this school to excel and be the best it can be.”

Jerkins said the students motivate her.

“It is being with the students and feeling that you can have an impact on their lives,” she said. “I truly do love the field of mathematics. It is completeness and perfection. It all fits together. I love sharing that puzzle with the students. It is feeling like maybe I can help somebody along the way.”

Tammy Demps, assistant principal at Leesburg High School, said Jerkins is always willing to work with the students.

“She tutors students during lunch time,” she said. “She tutors after school. Her students come first. Not only is she putting her students first, she is so helpful to her colleagues, making sure she shares best practices.”

Lake County School Board members Marc Dodd and Kristi Burns accompanied district officials and Education Foundation officials to Eustis Heights Elementary, Leesburg High School and Gray Middle School to congratulate Ritter, Simmons and Jerkins.

The three teachers were chosen from among 47 district wide.

A panel of six administrators and retired educators reviewed the teachers' applications and narrowed the list to three finalists.

Moxley said it is very important for Lake County Schools and the community to recognize and celebrate “our teachers for the job they do everyday.”

“Teaching is an impactful profession and admirable,” she said, adding that it is important to encourage young adults to pursue a field in education.

The winner will be chosen on Feb. 11 at Lake Receptions in Mount Dora.