LEESBURG — Tammy Jerkins was not going to let any of her students off the hook.

The students sat perplexed. watching her work through a complex algebra problem on the overhead projector. But they stayed engaged as Jerkins began calling students by name, making sure not to leave anyone out.

When one student answered the question correctly, Jerkins offered enthusiastic praise.

“You are on fire,” she said. “Maybe you should teach the class.”

And when one student got discouraged, letting out a big sigh, Jerkins encouraged him.

“Don’t sigh like that Jeremiah,” she said smiling. “I am going to let you do it,” referring to the math problem.

Jerkins, a finalist for Lake County Teacher of the Year and teaches secondary mathematics at Leesburg High School, said the relationships she builds with her students are an integral part of her teaching.

Those relationships, coupled with cooperative learning, where students in different levels of ability work together to improve their understanding of a subject, are key to successful teaching, according to Jerkins.

“You certainly have to have knowledge of the content,” she said. “What is really more important is the love of the student and the relationship you form with them. They don’t care to know until they know you care. They love to be shown attention and acknowledged.”

On Jerkins desk are plaques with sayings that embody her teaching.

“Dream big,” reads one, while another says, “We laugh, we learn.”

Jerkins has been rated a highly effective teacher.

She has taught liberal arts math to students who had failed the algebra I state exams. Exceptional Student Education students made up 65 percent of those classes.

During the years she taught liberal arts math, Jerkins said in her essay for Lake County Teacher of the Year, exactly 58 percent passed the algebra I end of course exam.

Jerkins said she always seeks to apply mathematics to the real world.

For example, she said she related the movie "Hidden Figures" to a math lesson on quadratic figures.

“I was able to connect that,” she said. “I believe everyone can learn (math). I have that expectation that some might need more support than others. I am willing to give it to them. Everyone can learn the material. They should be able to comprehend the material. With enough support and practice they will master it.”

Leesburg High School principal Dennis Neal said Jerkins is consistent in every aspect of her teaching.

“She goes above and beyond what just the minimal requirements are,” Neal said. “But then you add in that she is an alumni of Leesburg High School, lives in the area and is committed to Leesburg. She is at every game. She sponsors clubs. She has a vested interest in making sure that Leesburg is always represented well.”

Neal added: “You can’t fake the genuine love that Ms. Jerkins brings to her classroom and her students. That’s real and they know she has their best interest in mind and is always looking for them to achieve their goals even when they doubt themselves. She holds them to a high expectation and provides support to meet that expectation.”

Jerkins said she does have high expectations of students.

“Every student is expected to think, practice, listen, write, talk and work every minute of bell to bell instruction toward the goal of mathematical understanding,” she wrote in her essay. “I constantly challenge my students’ thinking as I call on them to prove, explain, predict or restate concepts during class.”

Certainly, Jerkins said her heart is at Leesburg High School.

“Some of my own friends and family members have asked me why I stay at a Title I school,” she wrote. “It is simple. These students need me most. Surely, they need the math content, but many of my students need so much more. They need someone to care enough to challenge them to work hard to meet their goals, confront them if not heading in the right direction and comfort them on their bad days. I want to be that teacher, the teacher who went the extra mile to help. That is why I teach.”