Lea Wainwright, a French teacher at Appoquinimink High School, was named the district's Teacher of the Year during a dinner at the Marion Proffitt Training Center on Tuesday.

Lea Wainwright was on maternity leave from a plumbing wholesaler when a struggling student came to her for some extra tutoring.

“The light bulb just went off and I realized this is what I wanted to do,” the French teacher at Appoquinimink High School said. “The next day I enrolled in classes at the University of Delaware to get my teaching certificate.”

More than 20 years later, that decision culminated in Wainwright being named the Appoquinimink School District’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.

“I couldn’t be more honored and flattered,” she said following a gala dinner at the Marion Proffitt Center in Odessa on Tuesday.  “But my first action as teacher of the year will probably be to go home and grade some papers that are on the backseat of my car right now.”

Wainwright was selected from a pool of 15 nominees, each of whom was chosen as their school’s teacher of the year.

Each of those teachers was nominated by a fellow teacher, student or parent before being awarded building honors by a committee of their peers.

Each building-level winner then submits a portfolio that includes a statement about their personal teaching philosophy, a resume of their teaching experience, education and activities, as well as three letters of recommendation.

Those portfolios are then scored by a committee – made up of administrators, teachers and the district’s current teacher of the year – which also conducts interviews with the candidates and observes each of them in the classroom at least twice.

“Each candidate is scored in those areas and we use that to pick our top three,” explained Debbie Panchisin, the district’s director of elementary education, who heads the teacher of the year committee along with Ray Graveur, the district’s director of secondary education. “From there we have a conversation about who best represents the district and has the best chance of winning at the state teacher of the year competition.”

Panchisin said all three finalists were excellent candidates, but Wainwright was consensus choice.

“She had a well written portfolio that included her philosophy of teaching and a strong resume with community involvement,” she said. “She also is well spoken and responded with poise and confidence to the questions posed during the panel discussions.”

During her acceptance speech, Wainwright recalled a student who once remarked how her classroom feel like a family.

“Everybody is this room is kind of a family … everybody in the community is part of a big family,” she said. “We all want the same thing. We all want our kids to succeed and to be happy and healthy and to feel good about being together with us, so thank you all for acknowledging me as being a part of your family.”

Wainwright will now compete for the Delaware Teacher of the Year honor, which is announced in October.

She also will receive a $2,000 salary bonus from the state later this year and a $500 grant from the Appoquinimink School District for use toward a professional development program of her choice.

Meanwhile, Katie Martinenza, the district’s 2013 Teacher of the Year, implored the other 14 nominees to cherish that honor by serving as an example for their co-workers.

“Find ways to inspire those around you to take their classes and their teaching to the next level,” she said. “Take the reigns as the building-level teacher of the year and make it the most amazing year you can. Volunteer to lead professional development in your building, get out in the community, attend district events and make your classroom the stage for all the amazing and wonderful things you are doing.”