North Harford Middle School seventh-grader Elena Schell never expected to describe algebra as "fun," but she said that Wednesday evening as she honored her teacher, Sharalyn Heinly, who was named Harford County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year for 2016.
"She's the most creative, intuitive and outgoing teacher I know; she makes algebra fun," Elena told an audience of 170 people gathered at The Bayou restaurant in Havre de Grace for the 22nd annual Teacher of the Year banquet for the surprise announcement of the winner.
Elena called Heinly "the most fun and best teacher I have."
Heinly, 53, a Norrisville resident, was one of five finalists for Harford County Public Schools' top honor for a teacher. A product of Harford's public schools who graduated from Bel Air High School in 1980, Heinly has taught mathematics in Harford County schools for 22 years.
The other four finalists were Amy Beighley, a special education teacher at Darlington Elementary School; Kristine Jurgs, a special education teacher at Southampton Middle School; Deborah Mateer, a math teacher at Havre de Grace High School; and Kimberly Wheeler, a fourth-grade teacher at Magnolia Elementary School.
Each finalist was introduced to the audience during the banquet by one of their students, who talked about the teachers have inspired them and made their various subjects enjoyable.
'An amazing ride'
The banquet, along with the multiple gifts presented to the winner and the four runners-up, were sponsored by a slew of Harford County businesses, including annual sponsors HAR-CO Credit Union and The Bayou.
Jillian Lader, manager of communications for HCPS and the banquet emcee, noted more than $25,000 worth of gifts and sponsorships were provided by 74 businesses.
Heinly's selection Wednesday was timed perfectly, as her gifts include a one-year free lease of a new Nissan Rogue provided by Jones Junction.
"My car is 20 years old!" she exclaimed as she accepted the Teacher of the Year honor.
Heinly became choked up several times as she talked about her career and being part of a family of educators, including her parents and her siblings.
Her parents, David and Carol Roberts, of Stewartstown, Pa., attended the banquet. Heinly's mother embraced her as she walked up to accept her award as the entire audience gave her a standing ovation.
"I started my teaching career 32 years ago with a piece of chalk," Heinly said. "What an amazing ride this has been, what a fun time to be a teacher!"
She thanked everyone who has supported her through her teaching career, starting with God, and including her parents, siblings, husband Mark, who has worked for HCPS for 34 years and is the orchestra director at North Harford Middle and North Harford High schools, plus their three children – Matt, 28, Josh, 26 and Katy, 25.
She also extolled her North Harford Middle family, including her principal, Karl Wickman, who nominated her for Teacher of the Year, along with school administrators, her fellow teachers, the support staff and parents and members of the community.
"We are blessed with the most caring and compassionate community at North Harford Middle School," Heinly said.
She also noted a former student, Cristina Fiorentino, is in her first year of teaching at North Harford High School.
Carol Roberts said she was "thrilled to death" for her daughter.
"I've been telling her all along she was a master teacher," Roberts said, noting if she had a teacher like her daughter when she was in school, she would have understood math.
"We were so proud she was one of five [nominees]," David Roberts said.
As Harford's Teacher of the Year, Heinly and 23 other local top teachers from around the state will be considered for this year's Maryland Teacher of the Year title.
Darla Strouse, director of the Maryland State Teacher of the Year program and executive director for partnership and development for the Maryland State Department of Education, said each local winner "represents hundreds of outstanding teachers."
Harford's Teacher of the Year for 2015, C. Milton Wright High School math teacher Laura Potter, reflected on her year of representing all of Harford County's more than 3,000 teachers.
"I've learned to accept the praise from so many that is meant for all the teachers here in Harford County," Potter said.
She listed four traits that make "excellent teachers," including believing in their students, being passionate about what they teach, a belief that "making a difference is worth your time" and a belief that "learning for yourselves makes you a better person."
"I truly believe, with all of my heart, that educators are today's heroes," Harford Board of Education President Nancy Reynolds said.