Lawrence Jehnert considers being named Harford County Public Schools Teacher of the Year to be a symbol of his experience in the school system coming "full circle" from when he was a student in the county schools and struggling to meet the potential his teachers told him he had.
"The whole thing is kind of like a full-circle story for me," he said during an interview last week in his classroom at Edgewood Elementary School after the students had left for the day. He teaches 23 third-graders.
He was named the top teacher March 26 during a banquet held at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
Jehnert, who grew up in the greater Bel Air area and is a 1997 graduate of C. Milton Wright High School, spent his early childhood in Rosedale. Now he lives in Bel Air with his wife and two children.
He noted during his acceptance speech that Superintendent Barbara Canavan was his principal when he attended Southampton Middle School from 1990 to 1993.
He said during the interview in his classroom when he was in school, "I just never worked up to my potential."
Jehnert said his mother would cry because she could never get a bumper sticker that said her son was an outstanding student, and he lamented that she could not attend an assembly where he would be honored for his scholastic achievements.
His parents did attend the Teacher of the Year banquet, however, when Jehnert was chosen out of a field of five finalists.
"My mom finally got to come to something where Mrs. Canavan called my name," he said.
Jehnert said his favorite part of winning the honor – he will serve as Teacher of the Year during the 2014-2015 school year – was when he and his wife Adrienne, a kindergarten teacher at Edgewood, came to school the day after the banquet.
They came in through the main entrance, where they found a red carpet stretching from the front door to the school library, and all the staff and students were cheering for him.
A large red banner bearing congratulatory messages has been posted in front of the school office, and more congratulatory posters can be found in the hallways and his classroom.
"To me, it's always been about the school," he said.
Jehnert said he hopes the recognition would "get this little old school, here off the beaten path, on the map a little bit, because good things really do happen here."
Jehnert, 34, has been a full-time teacher at Edgewood Elementary since the beginning of the 2002-03 school year.
He could not find a full-time position in Harford County when he graduated from Towson University in December 2001 with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, but he did find substitute teaching work at Edgewood, he said in an email Monday.
Jehnert began as a para educator in February 2002 and then began teaching full time in August 2002, working with first-graders.
"My very first class is graduating [high school] this year," he said.
He earned his master's degree, also in elementary education, from Towson in 2010. He teaches his this year's class with inclusion helper Donna Boblits.
Jehnert studied elementary education at Harford Community College from 1997 to 1999, but he did not get an associate's degree there; he also played baseball in high school and at HCC.
His community college coach was Tim Lindecamp, the athletic director at Aberdeen High School.
"I actually credit my coach at HCC [Lindecamp] for instilling a great deal of my leadership qualities in me as I played under him at HCC," Jehnert wrote in an email Monday.
In addition to teaching, Jehnert is the team leader for Edgewood's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports team, and he has coordinated professional development sessions for school staff.
Jehnert has spent his 12-year career at Edgewood, and he plans to stick around, in large part because everyone at the school, from teachers to administrative staff to custodians, is committed to doing whatever they can to help the children.
"As much as you put in you will get it back [from the students]," he said. "From the day I walked in, I just felt like it was this environment where everybody was on board with things."
Students have their say
For their final class period last Wednesday, Jehnert's third-graders had a math lesson. He was teaching them estimating with three-digit numbers.
They got two three-digit numbers and had to estimate them up or down to the nearest 10 or 100 and get a "ballpark estimate" of what those two numbers would add up to.
The children then had to solve the problem with the actual numbers.
The students wrote out their work on hand-held whiteboards, and they demonstrated the problems on the classroom's main electronic board.
Jehnert went around to each student and either observed their work or helped them work through challenging problems.
"He's the nicest teacher I ever imagined, and when were having trouble he walked us through it in funny ways," 9-year-old Eleiah McCaulley said.
His students noted that he doesn't just work with them, but encourages them to reach out to other children, such as writing notes to children who are battling cancer.
"He's funny, and when we have problems he's right there, telling us what the right thing to do is," Arieyon Corprew, 9, said.
Jehnert said he stresses the values of hard work and kindness to his students.
"Paramount to me is just kindness," he said.
Jehnert said he works to show the children kind behavior and encourages them to show kindness to each other, even through simple acts such as saying "good morning" or giving each other compliments.
"I think it just gives this level of comfort to everybody," he explained.