The Teacher of the Year for Harford County Public Schools is typically announced during a formal banquet at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace, a festive affair with the nominees in attendance, as well as their families, current or former students who give a speech as to why their teacher should win the honor, past Teachers of the Year, multiple county, school system and state leaders, plus representatives of local businesses that sponsor the event.
This year’s winner, Harford Technical High School social studies teacher Elizabeth White, was at home, with her husband by her side, watching the event online when her name was called by Superintendent Sean Bulson. Her four fellow finalists were in the same situation, watching the announcement ceremony live over the Microsoft Teams video conferencing network last Thursday.
The ceremony, like many other public events and meetings during the novel coronavirus pandemic, was held virtually. More than 200 invited guests participated, according to a news release from the school system. A video of the full event can be seen on the HCPS YouTube channel.
“It’s very different than being at the Bayou, where you’re surrounded by your family, people that you love, your community,” White, 33, said in a later interview. “Given COVID-19, we were just in our living rooms with our immediate family for the night.”
The ceremony was an "opportunity for the Harford County community to come together, in a very unique way this year, to celebrate the teaching profession,” Bulson said in a statement.
White noted that it was “an extreme honor to be nominated." She described the other finalists — Karen Gonzalez, a special education teacher at Magnolia Middle School, Jennifer Knoll, an Edgewood Middle School science teacher, fourth-grade teacher Erinn Ragan of Ring Factory Elementary School and Melissa Van Ruiten, a Youth’s Benefit Elementary School third-grade teacher — as “amazing educators.” White recalled being "very shocked when my name was called.”
“I’m hopeful that I can make Harford County proud and represent the teachers of the county in the best way possible,” White said Sunday.
She is, as the Harford County winner, a competitor for the title of Maryland Teacher of the Year; the statewide winner is expected to be announced in October.
White was nominated by her Harford Tech colleague, Amanda Roberts, chair of the school’s social studies department and her fellow faculty adviser for the Student Government Association. Isabella Johnson, a junior a Harford Tech and vice president of the SGA, spoke in honor of White, her current U.S. history teacher — this year’s student speakers gave their addresses via pre-recorded videos.
“I couldn’t be, physically, with any of them,” White said of her supporters. “They just had to watch from home.”
The ‘ultimate storytelling job’
White has been with Harford County Public Schools since 2009. She spent the first eight years at Edgewood High School, teaching general psychology and AP psychology.
She has been at Harford Tech for the past four years, teaching social studies. She currently teaches AP world history to sophomores and U.S. history to juniors.
White grew up in Jarrettsville and graduated from North Harford High School in 2004. She has since earned her bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education and a master’s degree in instructional leadership, both from Towson University.
She and her husband, Hinson, and their children — 4-year-old Rainier and 2-year-old Marian — are Forest Hill residents, and they are preparing to move to Jarrettsville. Hinson White previously taught at Aberdeen High School, and he now works as a program manager for the Smartlink telecommunications firm.
Elizabeth White’s parents inspired a love of history through multiple family trips to civil war battlefields and national parks. She was inspired to be an educator by her “incredible teachers” at North Harford Middle and High schools, noting that “I wanted to be like them.”
“For me, it’s just the ultimate storytelling job,” White said of being a history teacher.
She said she enjoys coming up with different ways to impart historical information to students. They often analyze primary sources, created by people who lived in past eras, and work to “understand why historical figures acted in certain ways, and [why] battles were fought and wars were fought.”
“Teaching cause and effect, continuity and change, and comparison skills, I think those three skills are important for students to become historical thinkers,” White said.
“Being able to give them the opportunity to apply those skills in a fun and engaging way is exciting,” she added.
White said she works with her students to apply their historical studies, such as U.S. immigration policy during the 1920s, to present-day issues.
“It’s not just a history class — they’re coming away with contemporary knowledge as well,” she said.
White’s U.S. history students were studying the Great Depression of the 1930s and her world history students were studying World War II when Harford schools, like their counterparts around the state, closed for in-person instruction during mid-March to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Teachers began reconnecting with their students through a variety of distance learning methods earlier this month. White gives her students assignments online through the itslearning platform, plus she records videos of herself explaining specific lessons, even reading information from primary historical sources aloud.
“I’m using as many strategies as I can, trying to keep it fun and engaging from home,” she said.
White also is helping her world history students prepare for their AP exam in May, which will be administered electronically this year rather than the traditional in-person, proctored test.
The students must answer an essay question based on five historical documents available during the test, as well as evidence they have learned in class.
“They have to do some pretty deep primary source analysis,” White said.
Keeping up with students
White’s students also have electronic resources to keep in touch with her, such as recording videos of themselves asking questions or giving updates on their lives while staying at home, and posting the videos to the Flipgrid system.
The students can talk about how they are being affected by the pandemic in the present, plus discuss with their teacher how aspects of the crisis, such as massive economic upheaval, compare to crises of the past.
“It’s been great, just seeing them and hearing their voices,” White said.
She noted that some of her students, such as those who are employed at local restaurants, are part of the essential workforce that must go to work and serve the community despite the pandemic. All of her students have to deal with various work and life challenges, while at the same time managing their high school coursework absent the structure of being in school in person, with its bell schedule and immediate support from teachers.
“It’s a lot of responsibility that’s, all of a sudden, on their shoulders,” White said.
White will talk with students herself, or she can refer them to a school counselor if they need additional support.
“Just making sure that they’re OK is my number-one priority,” she said.
Superintendent Bulson noted, in a statement, that the Teacher of the Year finalists “and teachers throughout the system are illustrating what our educators mean to our community.” He lauded them for working to “instruct, support and encourage our students remotely.”
“You can see each day on her social media accounts why Mrs. White has earned this title,” Bulson continued. “Even during everything going on in the world around us, Mrs. White is ensuring her students know she’s here for them.”