It was a big night for one special Harford County Public Schools teacher Thursday at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace where Christina D. O'Neill of Bel Air Middle School was named 2012 Harford County Teacher of the Year.
O'Neill, a sixth grade language arts teacher, was chosen from the more than 3,200 teachers in the county for the prestigious title.
When the Bel Air Middle School teacher was announced as Teacher of the Year, O'Neill was in shock as the room stood up to applaud her.
She nervously spoke as the honor began to sink in and accepted her new title "with tremendous pride and gratitude."
O'Neill spoke of what it means to be a teacher and mentor for children in the county.
"Teaching makes me come alive," she said. "I take away from it as much as I give."
The other four finalists for the award were Ronald O. Burke, a music teacher at Patterson Mill High School; Kelly A. Christ, who teaches English and dance at Edgewood High School; fifth-grade teacher Lauren M. Duell of William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School; and Kristina J. Marzullo, an English teacher at C. Milton Wright High School.
The winner was chosen by a judging committee that scored all teacher nomination packets that were then pared down to 10 semifinalists. From there, each teacher was interviewed by a panel of eight judges, resulting in the top five.
O'Neill, who has worked for Harford County's public schools for 18 years, was nominated by the school's principal, Sean Abel.
She has served as a teacher, volunteer, reading specialist and literacy leader with the school system and is a member of the instructional leadership and school improvement teams at Bel Air Middle.
One student of each teacher introduced the finalists with some kind words and why they believe their educator was the best out of the bunch.
Student Kiley Ernest described O'Neill as someone with "a true passion for teaching that is evident inside and outside of the classroom."
"I know Mrs. O'Neill is the perfect example of an amazing teacher," Kiley continued, adding that her teacher's love for learning was "contagious."
O'Neill also thanked the people who shaped her into the great educator she is — her parents, husband and daughters. O'Neill also recognized the administration and teachers she works with every day at Bel Air Middle.
Not forgetting the people she shapes every day, she said, "I am blessed to have students who are inquisitive and hard working."
The 2011 Harford Teacher of the Year, Christian Slattery, who spoke before the big announcement, said receiving the title is "a great opportunity for growth."
He addressed each finalist, saying, "Your dedication, inspiration and pure love of teaching is being honored tonight."
Slattery, a music teacher at Hall's Cross Roads Elementary in Aberdeen, led a chorus of 30 children from the school earlier in the evening and showed the entire room why he was so deserving of the award last year.
Along with the title of 2012 Harford Teacher of the Year, O'Neill received a Dell laptop, a one-year lease of a 2012 Kia Forte from Jones Junction, an engraved timepiece from Saxon's Diamond Center and a personalized, commemorative golden apple.
Each finalist, including O'Neill, received a $1,200 check from HarCo Federal Credit Union and a Kindle from Freedom Federal Credit Union.
A donation to of $1,000 from PNC was also given to the Teacher of the Year Program.