It was Tara Gardner's grandmother that sparked her desire to pursue a career in education.
Gardner grew up watching her grandmother teach, and recalls how well she did it — both in and out of the classroom. She always looked up to her, and throughout her school years Gardner was part of the Florida Future Educators of America, as well as taught summer camp and Sunday school classes.
But she almost didn't pursue education. In high school, she had expressed a desire to teach math one day, and her favorite math teacher at the time told her she wouldn't be successful. So Gardner pursued a degree in pre-medicine.
She loved medicine, but said she struggled with motivation and feeling unsure of her path. Gardner and her grandmother still communicated through handwritten letters at the time, and she said that after some difficult conversations with her grandmother and her parents, she decided to switch to majoring in education in her sophomore year of college.
"When you follow your dreams and the dreams are right, it's amazing how much easier life gets," Gardner said.
She later graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's in secondary math education, and recently obtained her master's in educational leadership from Barry University.
Gardner, now Mainland High School's Teacher of the Year, has been teaching for 20 years, 18 of which have been at Mainland. The New Smyrna Beach High School alumna taught math for 12 years, and now teaches digital photography, digital design and journalism within the school's career and technology department.
Her favorite thing about being a teacher is the honesty from the students, she said.
"They will let you know when it's to switch up methods," Gardner said. "Students are the best thermometers."
What keeps her motivated is knowing that "every day is a new day," she said. If there was a piece of wisdom she could share with her students, it would be to not let mistakes hold them back.
"Mistakes are stepping stones, learn from them and move on," Gardner said.
When not in the classroom, Gardner enjoys spending time with her five children and grandchild. She also enjoys camping.