Screams, balloons and a group of well-wishers ambushed Ryan Kaiser's lesson on current events to surprise him with one of the biggest events of his career.
Kaiser, social studies teacher at The Mount Washington School, who brings learning to life for students with field trips and shares his passion and practices with teachers in Baltimore and across the nation, was named the city's 2015 Teacher of the Year on Thursday.
"I feel like this is the first time I've won anything since track and field," Kaiser said as he stood in his sixth-grade class.
He was surprised with the honor in his classroom by city schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who interviewed candidates this year, a new part of the competition that includes an extensive review of candidates, recommendations, essays and classroom observations. Three parents nominated Kaiser.
"I came away wishing I was in his class or wishing my children had the opportunity to be part of his class," Thornton said. "He really makes learning come alive."
Mount Washington Principal Ashley Cook called Kaiser "a phenomenal teacher, a phenomenal colleague, a phenomenal teammate."
"I couldn't think of a more deserving educator," she said. Kaiser "is tremendously humble, but makes learning fun for our students. He's a natural historian and has definitely developed that in our students."
City schools pointed to Kaiser's contributions in and out of the classroom as the reason he was chosen for the top title.
In addition to teaching sixth and seventh grades, he coaches the school's Baltimore Urban Debate League team. He also serves with the school's Parent Teacher Organization, and engages and communicates with parents through a weekly blog.
In addition, city school officials said, he writes the middle school honors curriculum, serves as the communications coordinator for the Maryland Council for Social Studies, and writes curriculum and lesson plans for teachers nationwide for the White House Visitor Center.
Other teachers of the year announced by local school districts this year include Jennie Merrill, who teaches fifth grade at Severna Park Elementary in Anne Arundel County; Stephanie Geddie, a kindergarten teacher at Laurel Woods Elementary in Howard County; and Laura Potter, a math teacher at C. Milton Wright High in Harford County. Baltimore and Carroll counties have not announced their winners.
Kaiser, 40, a native of Omaha, Neb., has been a teacher for 16 years, 10 in the city. He moved to Maryland in 2005 and wanted to live and work in Baltimore because of its rich history.
The son of educators, Kaiser got into the teaching profession to share what he experienced as a student.
"They got me excited about learning, and I wanted to get other children excited about learning and seeing what's out there in the world," he said.
His passion for learning outside the confines of a classroom was reinforced by his postgraduate studies in outdoor experiential learning at the University of Colorado.
For Kaiser's students, the highlights of his classes include exploring the history of Baltimore and beyond in 20 to 30 field trips throughout the year. Many students pointed to learning about Alexander the Great at the Walters Art Museum as one of their favorites.
"It's hard to connect and make the kids understand everything they're learning in the classroom, so my big thing is learning by doing," Kaiser said. "The trips help them get a full grasp of everything we've been learning, and it really shows in their work. They also get them excited about the next thing."
But students pointed to more than field trips to explain why they thought he was the best in the city.
Alexander Hull, a sixth-grader at Mount Washington, said Kaiser "helps kids who need a lot of help on one topic."
"I had a B-minus, and it got raised to an A because he made sure I had extra help," Alexander said.
Sixth-grader Marticia Estelle said she felt he deserved the award after watching him prepare students to participate in National History Day.
"He worked really hard setting up the website; he helped set up and cleaned up," said Marticia. "He really deserved this award. He worked hard for it."
Kaiser also founded a summer camp that takes students on field trips along the East Coast and raises money during the year to help students attend.
He competed against more than 200 teachers and two other finalists for the title. He will receive gifts donated by various organizations and businesses. He will also represent the city in the state's Teacher of the Year competition.
Kaiser said he is inspired by his colleagues.
"If they had to pick one, I'll take it this year," he said. "But there are many that deserve this around the city."