May 1, 2024

Escambia, Santa Rosa counties honor the best of the best local educators

Cassi McGee

Stockbroker turned Teacher of the Year

Pure shock!

That’s what Escambia County Teacher of the Year Cassi McGee felt when she heard she won the title of the county’s most inspiring educator.

“As teachers, we go into our classrooms and close the door and teach our hearts out each day. We give our best to our students day in and day out for years while only expecting a reward of watching our students make academic gains,” said the Pine Meadow Elementary teacher.

“So, to be recognized and celebrated on this scale is not something I ever imagined happening.”

McGee’s principal, Dawn Morris, called witnessing McGee in action “beautiful.”

“Mrs. McGee is very passionate not just about teaching but about building a love of learning that will last a lifetime,”  Morris said about the fourth-grade teacher who left her career as a stockbroker to pursue her childhood dream.

Morris said when she walks into McGee’s classroom the vibe is much like a family reunion, complete with a dining room table. The sense of a healthy community is strong. Children frequently praise and work well together, following their teacher’s example.

“She really is amazing. She just shines bright. She lets her light shine for others and brings everybody into her fold,” Morris said.



Those stellar outcomes are the result of investing in the relationship before imparting knowledge, noted McGee.

“Excellent teachers care about their students as people. My success as a teacher comes from first showing my students that I respect them and want to know them as individuals. A mutual relationship of trust must be formed between the teacher and the student and their family,” explained McGee, who, once trust is won, goes for academic achievement with her own personal bag of tricks.

“After that strong foundation is formed, patience and a flair for the dramatic is helpful! Learning should be fun, after all,” mused the graduate of Escambia County schools who attended Florida State University.

“She only goes for the good,” said Morris. “With the positive reinforcement and the encouragement she gives, they want to work for her, they want to please her and because of that, they give their best effort every day. She gives her best, so they give their best.”

Not only has McGee created a great classroom community, her students — from the highest to the lowest — typically have strong learning gains. As Morris points out, raising learning gains on the high achievers is not an easy feat.

“Almost every child in her room made a learning gain, whether they were high achieving or low achieving,” Morris explained. “She’s not just teaching to the middle; she’s teaching every child in every way.”


Not only does McGee create a thriving classroom that includes special needs learners where learning and joy abound, she also leads the school’s winning Sunshine Math team. As a former finance major and stockbroker, the skill sets fit.

The transition from manipulating money for gain to maximizing student lives was a decision that came straight from the heart.  

“I love to see student growth! Watching a person gain knowledge is the most rewarding experience I could have,” she said. “My day is never work. I genuinely love and enjoy teaching.”

McGee treasures a wealth of memories since launching her teaching career in Tallahassee in 2003.

“I have so many memorable moments over the past 20 years. I especially love when my previous students get in touch with me to update me on important moments in their lives. It means a lot that they care enough to continue including me in their lives.”

She is proud to be recognized as Escambia County’s Teacher of the Year and offers praise to her fellow boots-on-the-ground educators.

“It is amazing, exciting and humbling to be chosen to represent all of the amazing Escambia County teachers who teach their hearts out every day.”

Christal Bennett

Santa Rosa teacher builds bands and lives

A “happy accident” resulted in the Santa Rosa County Teacher of the Year finding her life calling.

Central School teacher Christal Bennett immersed herself in choruses and musical performances as a grade schooler — soaking up every melodious moment. So it was only natural to sign up for chorus when entering sixth grade.

“However, a guidance counselor accidentally put me in band instead. I ended up sticking with band from sixth grade until now,” explained Bennett, who is forever “grateful for the mix-up.”

The rest of the teacher’s young life is an upbeat history including teaching seventh through 12th grade beginning and advanced band and percussion, color guard, ukelele and guitar at Central, a K-12 school. She spearheaded the formation of the school’s first marching band, which is already garnering excellent marks at competitions.

And of course, being named Santa Rosa County’s top teacher, which Bennett called overwhelming given the county’s many stellar teachers.

Bennett’s passion for excellence leaves a wide ripple effect, noted her principal, Klinton Lay.

“Her commitment to nurturing musical talent has resulted in an increase in students being accepted by audition into All-County Band, All-State Honor Band, college honor bands and community bands. In fact, one of her students even earned the prestigious position of first chair for the state,” he said.


Bennett’s love story with music started at an early age.

“As far back as I can remember, my family had weekly karaoke parties, where I was first encouraged to perform and sing for others. It was so much fun because no one worried about sounding good. It was more important to have fun with the people you love,” said the eldest of seven siblings.

When she was a sixth-grader, Bennett’s dad gifted her a guitar for Christmas.

“This helped me bridge the gap between my vocal performance and instrumental performance interests.”

In middle school, Bennett’s band director noticed her long fingers and quick mind and suggested she switch from clarinet to bassoon. It is her main instrument to this day, playing for the Pensacola Civic Band and hiring out for other professional music events. She has acquired basic skills in flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, French horn, trombone, euphonium, tuba and percussion.

“I still play guitar, and now ukulele, as singing is still a big part of how I enjoy processing music.”


Bennett not only fell in love at a young age with making music, but also the life-building benefits of band class.

“As the positive outcomes of being in a band classroom began to affect me personally, I began to aspire to be a band director, as early as in seventh grade. Music education was changing my outcome in life and my outlook on life, and I wanted to provide that same life-changing experience to my own students,” said the graduate of Santa Rosa schools and the University of West Florida.

And that is exactly the life score she composed.

“My favorite part of teaching music is seeing the pride it instills. Playing an instrument does so much for the human brain, body and spirit,” said Bennett, ticking off a laundry list of benefits like accountability, teamwork, goal-setting and good old-fashioned fun.

“When they present these skills at a high level, it brings a sense of pride unlike any other. There is no greater reward than knowing we did that together thanks to your part.”

Besides relishing playing and teaching several instruments, Bennett loves empowering students to be leaders. Case in point: a student leadership team that was an integral part of bringing the dream of a marching band to fruition.

Good grades, improved behaviors, musical strength and synergy were added gains.

“In the founding of a marching band, the rigorous camps, fun football games, musical memories and new traditions created a student lead community in which they played a significant role —  not just an instrument!”

Lay sees it too.

“From accountability and teamwork to determination, respect, self-discipline and social skills, Mrs. Bennett instills in her students invaluable attributes that extend beyond the realm of music education.”

And that’s what takes Christal Bennett’s teaching from exceptional to magical!