George McGurl

George McGurl, a 6th grade Earth Science teacher at Burleigh Manor Middle School, is a finalist for state Teacher of the Year. Behind his is a periodic table of elements. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun / September 4, 2013)

Burleigh Manor Middle School sixth-grade teacher George McGurl says he can recall having an interest in science back in early middle school, and he says his sixth-grade teacher will back him up on that.

For good measure, McGurl summons Burleigh Manor science teacher Daryl Blickenstaff — who was McGurl's sixth-grade teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle more than two decades ago, and is one of several of his former teachers working alongside him now.

McGurl, 35, said his teachers recognized and cultivated his interests and passions early on. Now he working to do the same for other children.

He has taught for 10 years at a school a few blocks from where he grew up, eager to be the first science teacher that students at Burleigh Manor Middle have.

McGurl's passion for the job helped make him a finalist for 2013-2014 Maryland Teacher of the Year, having been selected by judges including principals, teachers, school boards and parents. Teachers were judged on criteria including teaching philosophy, community involvement and suggestions for instructional improvement.

Maryland State Department of Education officials said teachers will give interviews in two weeks; the Maryland Teacher of the Year will be announced Oct. 11. Other local teachers among the finalists are Jodie Hogan of Anne Arundel County, Ketia C. Stokes of Baltimore City and Sean McComb of Baltimore County.

For McGurl, a Columbia resident, the honor comes after receiving a Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, which honors local teachers. Though he currently teaches earth science, he has also taught biology, physics and chemistry, and leads the school environmental education, Green School and STEM programs.

"He's a very giving person in terms of his time and talents," Blickenstaff said. "I remember him as a sixth-grader because he was always asking me very thought-provoking questions, and I could tell he was always paying attention and thinking.

"Whenever I would ask a question of him or [answer] one of his questions, I could always tell he was really thinking about what was said, and not just saying, 'Oh, OK, that's it,' and just moving on," Blickenstaff said.

As a University of Maryland, College Park and McDaniel College graduate, McGurl said he ventured toward a career in microbiology, but after teaching at a local after-care program for three hours a day, he discovered he enjoyed working with middle school students and opted to become a teacher instead.

"I looked forward to spending time with kids more than I did spending time in the lab," McGurl said. "I enjoyed helping them with their homework and playing sports. It's such an interesting and wonderful time when they're still young, they don't know what they want to do but they think they have everything figured out. But secretly, they're still in search of influences and making up their minds what they want to do."

McGurl conjures up ways to pique interest in hands-on learning, recalling a recent safety demonstration where he dressed up in shorts, flip-flops and a wig and asked students to identify safety rules while intentionally performing tasks incorrectly.

After students pointed out his mistakes, he led a discussion about how rules are design to keep people safe.

He said that as county elementary schools do not have science teachers, sixth-graders take science knowing little of what to expect.

"If I have them draw a picture the first day as to what science looks like it's usually a guy in a lab coat doing things at a table alone, and that's not what science is," McGurl said.

"Science is a lot of people working together to solve problems in varying ways," McGurl said. "Just breaking down that mystery and showing them what it can be and all that it includes and all the different career paths that are open up to them when they explore it, that's my job."

"I want to make sure that whatever they learn in my classroom is great, but the feeling that they like science, and say, 'Maybe this is something I'd want to do with my life,'" he said. "That's the feeling I want them to walk out with."

McGurl said some of his first students are now graduating from college and earning advanced degrees, and one has gone on to become a science teacher.

"A lot of my teachers are still here from when they opened the building," said McGurl. "The principal that was originally at this school was at Ellicott Mills, and he brought about half the staff with him. This is bringing it home for me."

jburris@baltsun.com