EUSTIS – Students in Anthony Ritter’s fifth-grade class pondered the question: Should Zheng He, the 14th century Chinese explorer, be celebrated?

But it was how they were answering the question that was interesting.

They had to write an essay, but they could also build a ship modeled after He, or they could write a diary entry pretending to be one of He’s crew members.

Ritter, a finalist for Lake County’s Teacher of the Year, who teaches gifted English language arts students in third through fifth grades, said such choices are a product of personalized learning, a new program in which learning is tailored to individual students.

Ritter credits personalized learning and collaborative learning, where students learn most effectively when they acquire knowledge from their peers, with improving student achievement in his classes.

“It works with gifted students.  You have to provide personalized learning because (the students) are on a range of different levels.”

Ritter said 85 to 95 percent of his students showed growth in the highest tier of the assessment.

Ritter has to plan lessons for 20 students that are all on different learning levels. He describes his teaching as “student-based learning.

“I don’t teach for the whole day,” he said.

Students in his classroom gathered this week in small groups, brainstorming how they would determine the answer to the open-ended question concerning He.

Behind Ritter’s desk hangs a poster created by his students that reads, "Why we like Mr. Ritter." In marker, the students wrote:


“Because he is an awesome and funny tech teacher,” one student wrote.
“Because he pushes me to be the best I can,” said another.
And a third student wrote, “He helps us and treats us like family.”

In addition to teaching gifted students, Ritter also serves as coach for the Eustis Heights robotics team.

He has students “working to design, build, program and compete in challenging tasks,” according to Ritter.

In 2016, the school’s robotics team placed fourth in the state at the Vex Robotics State Championship.

“I take a hands off approach with robotics,” he said. “It is very student-based.”

Ritter also said a big part of success in teaching comes from parental involvement.

“I, like most teachers, believe that students are most successful when there is active parent involvement,” he wrote in his essay for Lake County Teacher of the Year. “In my classroom, I use the application, ‘Class Dojo’ to be in constant communication with the parents of my students. I have managed to get every parent in my class signed up and communicate with them weekly.”

 Teaching is most gratifying for Ritter when he is able to see his students do something he wouldn’t know how to do, such as programming a robot from scratch, or they simply do something he didn’t expect them to do.

He said there are misperceptions about gifted students.

“Even though they are smart, they still have their highs and lows,” he said. “They still have their pitfalls you have to identify and work on. They still have the things that need to be taught to them.”

By far, the biggest challenge in teaching gifted students “is showing continual growth” because it can sometimes be difficult for a child so high above grade level, Ritter said.

Asked what makes a great teacher, Ritter becomes humble, saying he is blown away by the honor of being chosen as a finalist for the county’s teacher of the year.

“A great teacher is someone who goes above and beyond to inspire students,” he said.

Eustis Heights Principal Chad Frazier said Ritter has a love for learning, a significant attribute that makes a great teacher.

“He is open to any new challenges and trying new strategies in his classroom,” he said.

Frazier said Ritter puts in a variety of multimedia strategies that involve technology to help accelerate student learning—such as allowing his students to take part in a program that gives them graphical coding practice.

Frazier added Ritter has to have variety in his instruction because he has children with high IQ’s.

“He has to keep things fresh and related to real world applications,” he said.

Growing up where he struggled in school, Ritter, 28, said he credits his teachers for helping him excel.

“I want to be that role model for students they are for me,” he said of his teachers. “Educators had been one of the largest factors in shaping me into who I had become.”