Bel Air Middle School teacher Rebecca Gault was surprised during a sixth-grade assembly at her school Tuesday morning.
Gault and the students, as well as all the other faculty members, thought they were there to celebrate some kind of achievement. And they were: The assembly was held to highlight the particular achievements of Gault, a 22-year teacher, who was announced as one of five 2013 inductees to the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
"I am just incredibly stunned; I had no idea this was happening. It's just amazing," Gault said afterward. "I never thought I ever would have a chance to be picked."
Gault is one of five teachers selected for the Hall of Fame this year. She is third in three years from Maryland and the first woman. This is the 21st class of the Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1989 and has 105 educator members. Gault was one of a group of 20 semi-finalists for the honor, who were then narrowed down to the five to be inducted.
The sixth-grade language arts teacher was nominated by her best friend, 2012 Harford County Teacher of the Year Christina O'Neill, but Gault didn't think she had a shot for the honor. When she didn't hear anything, Gault thought she didn't make it.
As the sixth-graders and their teachers gathered in the gym Tuesday morning, Gault stood among her colleagues and listened as school officials lauded Bel Air Middle School students and teachers for their achievements.
But as a stranger, introduced as Christy Levings, started to speak, Gault realized what was happening. Levings mentioned Kansas, and "I said hmmmm... Then she said Emporia, and I knew," Gault said.
Emporia is the location of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, at Emporia State University, and Levings, representing the hall of fame, was in Bel Air to recognize Gault, who has spent 20 of her 22 teaching years at Bel Air Middle. She previously taught at Aberdeen Middle.
"She represents what is great in American education today," Levings said of Gault.
Gault celebrated the honor with her family, husband James, and her children, Anna, 11, and Joshua, 9, both students at nearby Homestead-Wakefield Elementary. Her family found out early Tuesday morning when Bel Air Middle Principal Sean Abel called to tell James not to send the kids to school so they could be there for the announcement.
"I'm like, unexplainably proud. I just can't comprehend it," Anna, a fifth-grader, said.
"I think she deserves it. I think she's a really good teacher," Joshua, a third-grader, said.
Her husband is equally proud.
"She's so dedicated. It doesn't stop at 3:30 with her when she gets home. She's a teacher 24/7," James Gault said.
One of her students, Ray Burrows, who led the assembly in the Pledge of Allegiance, said Gault is the best teacher he's ever had.
"She cares about every student, everybody, even if they're not in her classroom. She doesn't have favorites," Ray said. "To find a teacher who gives so much dedication to her job is rare."
In her nomination video, Abel, the principal at Bel Air Middle for five years after serving four years as assistant principal, said Gault performs "magic in the classroom."
"She's probably one of the most professional teachers I've ever worked with," Abel said later Tuesday. "She knows how to get the kids, whether they are struggling readers or they love to read, she really knows how to teach them and get them to achieve to their potential."
He also said she's one of the most intelligent people he knows and is one of his "go-to" teachers when he needs instructional support.
"This is a well-deserved honor for her," he said.
Teachers get feedback every day from students, but it sometimes take a little time for them to realize the impact a teacher has on their lives.
"To be recognized by your peers is definitely an affirmation of the fact that you're touching the lives of these kids. To be recognized is certainly a shot in the arm for any teacher, and for all the teachers here at the school, she's representing all the good work they do every day," Abel said.
Teaching sixth-graders can be challenging, but Gault loves her students.
"They are bright, they are energetic and questioning and very open and respectful to character development. They are amazing, wonder human beings who absorb everything, who watch everything, who are looking for role models and looking for direction," she said. "I am blessed to be part of shaping those personalities, to be doing something that matters every day."
She said it's an honor to know people are looking for ways to honor teachers.
As a Hall of Fame inductee, Gault was awarded a $10,000 tablet and software package from Digidoo for classroom use, $1,000 in educational materials from Pearson Education and a National Teachers Hall of Fame pin and ring from Herff Jones Company that she was fitted for Tuesday and will be presented during the three-day induction June 12 to 14 in Kansas.
A stunned Gault walked up to the podium, while the sixth-graders and teachers at the assembly stood and cheered for her. She thanked the students she teachers every day, whom she said are amazing, the leadership at her school, where Abel "fosters and environment of learning and supports teaching the way he does," her kids and husband for their moral support and the "amazing" professionals who are "kind to the kids and dedicated to teaching at Bel Air Middle School."
"Twenty of my 22 years have been at Bel Air Middle School," she said. "It's been my saving grace and my saving place."