A small group of children in Kristin Schaub's fifth-grade class at Havre de Grace Elementary School was getting ready to take the science portion of the annual Maryland School Assessment test recently, the last in the class to be tested.
Rather than a classroom on test day, the atmosphere in the classroom of Harford County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 resembled that of the Ravens' locker room before a big game, where the group was surrounded by fellow students and educators cheering them on.
The students had already gotten themselves pumped up for class by watching – and dancing to – a brief "Purple Fridays" video starring the now-retired Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
"Before we send them off to do their best, we want to make sure we pump them up," Schaub explained, as the students held hands and formed a circle around the test-takers. Before class, Schaub described herself as a "die-hard" Ravens fan.
In the circle, the students also gave words of encouragement, such as "I know you guys will rock this test because you're smart."
Student Lyquel Trafton, 10, said Schaub is "a perfect teacher for me; I have learned a lot from her."
"When my team pumps me up I feel passionate," Lyquel continued. "I feel like I can do it."
Danielle Hartman, also 10, said the pumping up "helps you get your head in the game, and it helps you focus more.
The efforts to pump up students and incorporate music and dance into traditional classroom instruction are among the reasons Schaub was selected out of five finalists for HCPS' highest honor for teachers.
Danielle said her teacher deserved the award "because when we're learning something and somebody needs something, she's right there helping."
Schaub was announced as the latest Harford Teacher of the Year – much to her surprise – during the 19th annual awards banquet held March 27 at The Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
"It's still a little overwhelming," she said during a reporter's visit to her class two weeks after she received the honor. "I really have no remembrance from after they called my name."
The selection process
Schaub, who has been at Havre de Grace Elementary since the fall of 2004, was a finalist for the award along with Tara Buecker, a physical education and health teacher at Jarrettsville Elementary School, Laura Childs, an English teacher at Edgewood High School and Kimberly Harner and Kristine Jurgs, both special educators at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air.
"The other finalists, each of them were so amazing," she said.
The five finalists were selected by an HCPS panel of judges from a pool of 10 candidates who had been nominated by students, colleagues, members of the community and more.
After an interview process, the field was narrowed to five. Schaub said she did not know the candidates personally before going through the Teacher of the Year selection process.
"It's amazing how quickly you can bond with somebody, walking through this process," she said.
Schaub was nominated by her principal, Renee Villareal, who described her as "the kind of teacher that any parent would want to have for their child," and said she "represents all the great teaching that Harford County has to offer."
Villareal said she has worked in the school system for 22 years, and Schaub was the first person she's nominated for Teacher of the Year.
A press release provided by HCPS following the March 27 banquet noted 95 percent of Schaub's students had scored "proficient or better" in math, and 80 percent proficient or better in reading on the 2012 MSAs.
"Her data-driven teaching strategies produce purposeful instruction, allowing her students to achieve success," the release stated.
The release also noted Havre de Grace is classified as a Title I school, where a significant percentage of the student population lives below federal poverty guidelines.
"You put her data on top of what you see every day in the classroom – the things that you can't measure with a number – and that makes her the complete package," Villareal said of Schaub.
'We are a team'
Schaub co-teaches her fifth-graders with special educator Daniel Zubrowski, with whom she has shared a classroom for several years.
Their students are a mix of regular education and special education students with a variety of physical, emotional and intellectual special needs, but Schaub and Zubrowski stressed they work to ensure a classroom visitor would not know who the special education students are.
"We are a team," Schaub explained. "We succeed together; we don't leave anybody behind, and it's creating that environment of safety and the ability to take risks in here..."
Zubrowski and Schaub use cheers, dancing, singing, costumes, hand-on experiments and more to help the students relate to their subjects. The students even wear maroon and white team jerseys.
"I would just bring these silly crazy ideas, and she would find ways to tie it into the curriculum," Zubrowski said of their teaching relationship.
They are further helped by having the students in their homeroom throughout the school day, which is typical at Havre de Grace Elementary. It allows them to get to know the students, down to what they eat for lunch and what games they like to play at recess.
"We're able to use all of that to help plan meaningful instruction for them," Schaub said.
Zubrowski said that, by having special education and regular education students in the same classroom, they are learning critical lessons about working with different people.
"Just like in the real world, you're going to have to learn to work with each other to get the job done," he said.
Schaub was a special needs student as a toddler growing up in Bel Air. Thanks to assistance from the Harford County's Child Find Program – which is operated by school districts across Maryland and the United States and mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – she was at grade level by the time she entered first grade.
"I'm really a huge believer in early intervention," she said.
Schaub said the teachers she interacted with through Child Find and at Bel Air Elementary School inspired her to go into education.
"I think seeing the impact teachers had in my life from early on, they became my heroes, they became who I wanted to be," she explained.
Schaub graduated from C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air in 2000. She obtained her bachelor's degree in elementary education from Towson University in 2004 and her master's in instructional technology in 2012.
Jennifer Gasdia is a Title I teacher specialist at Havre de Grace Elementary. She is responsible for ensuring the school meets the state's expectations for a Title I school – federal law requires extra resources to be directed to schools with large student populations in need.
Gasdia also works with teachers on professional development, and said Schaub has demonstrated her teaching methods for fellow Harford County educators.
"She's perfected the art of co-teaching," Gasdia said of Schaub.
Gasdia added: "I think what's impressed me the most is how she builds community in her classroom, how she has such high expectations for her students and how they all rise to the occasion."