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Harford teachers, new and experienced, will start the 2020 school year at the same level with online instruction

New Magnolia Elementary School teacher Monique Hawkes takes a little time to get familiar with the building as she takes a stroll through the halls Thursday morning.
New Magnolia Elementary School teacher Monique Hawkes takes a little time to get familiar with the building as she takes a stroll through the halls Thursday morning. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Harford County Public Schools teachers, whether they are new to the profession or have decades of experience, are starting the 2020-21 school year on the same footing in a key area — live online instruction being provided when the new academic year begins next week.

More than 38,000 HCPS students start school Tuesday, and their teachers will impart knowledge to them through a computer, rather than in person for the first semester as officials work to protect students, teachers and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Veteran educators ”may have more content knowledge and experience than a new teacher, but we’re all learning the digital end of teaching at the same time,” said Karen Gabel, a new kindergarten teacher at Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa.

Gabel was in the school building with several of her fellow new teachers Thursday morning. Schools in Harford County and Maryland have been closed to the public since the pandemic began in mid-March, but HCPS buildings have been open in recent days as families pick up supplies for students.

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Teachers and administrators at Magnolia also have been interacting with families in person, such as during a community event at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa on Wednesday. That helps students get to know their teachers face to face ahead of the start of online classes, according to principal Audrey Vohs.

“We want them, during that open house, to see that [teacher’s] face before they see it over the screen,” Vohs said.

There are five new teachers at Magnolia this year, part of a staff of about 75 serving 545 students. Vohs said the new teachers have worked in education before, as para-educators or teachers at other schools.

“It’s a really exciting transition for our new teachers,” she said.

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Gabel, 48, of Edgewood, knows many of her incoming kindergarten students through her prior position as the play group teacher for the Judy Center, the Magnolia Elementary-based early learning facility that serves pregnant mothers and children up to age 5 who live in the catchment area for the elementary school.

“It’s all about building school readiness skills,” said Gabel, who worked at the Judy Center for six years. She made the transition to classroom teaching because “it just felt like the right time to grow” in her career.

She has gained experience and training through her time at the Judy Center as well as her current part-time job teaching pre-GED and GED math through the adult literacy program at Harford Community College.

Gabel also kept the attention of her young charges at the Judy Center, through remote online instruction during the spring, by wearing silly hats or singing and dancing, which helped her practice “engaging students from a distance.”

“It’s nice to be a new teacher in this climate,” she said.

Gabel’s colleague, Monique Hawkes, will teach fourth-grade reading and writing during her first year at Magnolia Elementary. Hawkes is in her fourth year of teaching and comes to HCPS from a charter school in New Orleans, where she also taught fourth-graders.

Hawkes, 25, grew up in Baltimore and resigned during the previous school year to return home to deal with a personal crisis. The upcoming school year will be her first experience with online teaching and learning, but she said she feels “excited and up for the challenge.”

“When you’re a teacher you just learn to roll with” anything that happens, Hawkes said, and online instruction “is what’s happening in education right now.”

She cited hearing students call her “Ms. Hawkes” and “the joy that I get when a kid understands something” as some of her favorite aspects of teaching. Hawkes’ grandmother was a teacher for two years, and Hawkes has wanted to be a teacher since childhood, saying that “I’ve always wanted to help kids in some way.”

“[I am] just ready to figure out how to do it and still build relationships, even if we can’t do it in person,” she said of online instruction.

One advantage of online classes is that teachers can get to know their students better, as the majority of students will be in their homes. Hawkes said she can engage her students by asking them to show her personal items such as their favorite toys or pairs of shoes.

“There’s still a community to be had, even though we’re online,” Hawkes said.

New Havre de Grace High School teacher Ethan Heckscher, back and Kim Schmidt work through a test TEAMS meeting with fellow teacher Rob Scott at the school Thursday morning.
New Havre de Grace High School teacher Ethan Heckscher, back and Kim Schmidt work through a test TEAMS meeting with fellow teacher Rob Scott at the school Thursday morning. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

‘Just be myself’

Havre de Grace High School’s Ethan Heckscher starts his first year as a full-time HCPS teacher Tuesday after three years as a substitute teacher at his alma mater, C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air. He will teach business and AP computer science at HHS, which is in a massive new home, the combined Havre de Grace Middle-High School off of Lewis Lane.

The $80 million structure, which is opening this year, replaces the aging Havre de Grace Middle School adjacent to the new facility and the high school at Congress Avenue and South Juniata Street.

Heckscher, 26, does have his own classroom in the new school, which he described as “the best feeling ever,” but he will be teaching remotely for the first semester.

“Despite it being virtual, I’m going to just come at it the same way I would if I was in the classroom — I’m going to just be myself,” said Heckscher, who noted he does not want to have one style for online instruction and then change once everyone goes back to the building.

“I want to show them who I am, show them how much I love my job and that I love teaching, and then that just makes the classroom environment better,” he said. “Even if it’s going to be virtual, I’m still bringing that positive energy.”

Heckscher’s mother teaches kindergarten in Baltimore County Public Schools. He was inspired to go into the field by a professor during his last year of college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing. The professor encouraged him to explore teaching, noting how Heckscher often tutored his college classmates.

“From my experience, there’s no better feeling that when a student comes to you — not other people — comes to you for help, and then you’re able to sit down with them, help them, and then you see that moment where they get it,” he said.

Heckscher was with two veteran colleagues Thursday, including Rob Scott, coordinator of HHS’ new magnet program, the Information Technology Oracle Academy, and Kim Schmidt, a teacher leader.

Scott is in his eighth year of teaching and has previously taught math. There will be 30 freshmen, drawn from all Harford County middle schools, in the information technology magnet program for its inaugural year.

The students will start with courses in database foundations and Java programming fundamentals. The magnet students will focus on coursework their freshmen and sophomore years and then spend their junior and senior years taking community college classes in IT or working as interns with Aberdeen Proving Ground or area businesses, according to Scott.

Their magnet program courses must be balanced with completing HCPS and the state’s core high school curriculum, Schmidt noted.

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“I’m really excited for the students to be able to have that opportunity,” Scott said of the program.

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He said the first day of school is always “exciting and scary, but you’re excited to be back, you’re excited to connect with kids.”

“As long as we can continue to invest in their lives, that’s what we’re all about, is just putting in these deposits that can be then cashed in later on in their life,” Scott said of students.

Kim Schmidt, 30 year educator and 2009 Harford County Teacher of the Year talks about her excitement for the new school year and the challenges that she and fellow teachers face as they embark on the start of the school year with virtual classes.
Kim Schmidt, 30 year educator and 2009 Harford County Teacher of the Year talks about her excitement for the new school year and the challenges that she and fellow teachers face as they embark on the start of the school year with virtual classes. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

‘Learning curve for everyone’

Schmidt has been a teacher for 30 years and been at Havre de Grace High since 2005. She also taught at Havre de Grace Middle School from 1993 to 1997, plus she taught in Baltimore County and was an administrator in the HCPS central office before returning to teaching in Havre de Grace 15 years ago.

Schmidt teaches social studies, including government, AP government and college-level sociology, plus she is the social studies department chair, member of HHS’ school performance and achievement team and was named Teacher of the Year for Harford County in 2009.

“This community is just amazing, I just love Havre de Grace,” the North East resident said.

Schmidt described Havre de Grace as “wonderful,” highlighting the city as diverse, inclusive and “a little microcosm of the United States in all of its beauty.”

She praised how online education will be synchronous this year, with teachers and students interacting in real time online and students having a set school day, as opposed to the spring when teachers posted lessons online and students completed them at a later time — students could interact with their teachers through email, phone calls and video chat.

“There is going to be a learning curve for everyone, as far as understanding how we can utilize all the tools that we have before us,” Schmidt said.

She noted “hidden gems” have been revealed in online instruction, such as giving students who might have been too shy to ask a question in the classroom the ability to connect with their teacher electronically.

“That has been a real, sort of, secret blessing of a lot of this,” she said.

The challenge of keeping all students engaged is not unique to this year, as it can be an issue even when teachers and students are face to face in a classroom, Schmidt noted. Teachers “are going to have to be creative and figure that out” when faced with the same challenge online.

“I think we’re going to have lots of really wonderful opportunities and challenges, which is what public education is,” she said. “It has always been like that, it will always be like that — we open our door on Day One to every child.”

Schmidt encouraged people to “just be human beings, support one another,” including educators, students and parents during the school year.

“Life is change, isn’t that what COVID has taught us?” she asked. “Life is constantly changing, and we have to adapt; who would have thought that we would have to adapt the way we’ve adapted in 2020?”

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