On a Monday afternoon at Hickory Elementary School, first-grade teacher Lauren Byrd had 19 students in her classroom, either gathered on a carpet in the front of the room or seated at desks with plexiglass dividers on them.
One more student, Anna Baker, was on screen via the interactive whiteboard on the classroom wall. A webcam attached to the ceiling projector allows Anna to see her teacher and classmates, and she can communicate with Byrd, who was wearing a wireless earpiece during lessons. Students and staff, including teaching assistant Sonia Evans-Wesley, all wore masks while in the classroom.
Some of the activities through which Byrd led all of her students included a reading of “Dinosaurs Before Dark,” part of the Magic Tree House book series; a social studies lesson on how technological changes have affected families, in terms of cooking, cleaning, communication and washing clothes; as well as “brain breaks” between lessons, when the children danced along with a video and counted to 100.
Anna, in response to a question about how families did laundry in the past, talked about how clothes were placed in a bucket with soap and water, rather than a laundry machine, based on what she had seen in the Disney film “Beauty and the Beast.”
While the children were outside taking a five-minute “mask break,” Hickory Principal Brad Stinar praised how Byrd — who was named Harford County Public Schools’ 2021 Teacher of the Year last week — and other teachers have been “so thoughtful” in their efforts to ensure students who are still at learning virtually at home during the COVID-19 pandemic are included in classroom activities.
“She can walk around the room, talk to the child and make that child feel like they’re here,” Stinar said of Byrd.
Most of HCPS’ more than 38,000 students have spent the school year learning virtually. Some students could attend in person during the fall through learning support centers in school buildings, such as Hickory Elementary. Their teachers remained virtual, although adult proctors were available to assist.
Elementary students began returning to school in a hybrid fashion in early March, and they now learn in person four days a week. Families do have the option of keeping their children at home, learning virtually.
Twenty out of Byrd’s 21 first-graders are learning in person, with Anna remaining virtual. Byrd said it has been “absolutely incredible to have them back, face to face, with me.”
“Those interactions [with students] that you’re able to have face to face ... you can’t replace those — there’s no way to replicate it,” she said.
‘Caring is what they need first’
Byrd, 38, has been teaching for 17 years, nine of them with Harford County Public Schools. She grew up in Howard County and started her career at Severna Park Elementary School in Anne Arundel County.
Byrd applied to HCPS around the time she and her husband, Ryan, who grew up in Joppatowne, bought a house in Harford County and had their first child, Aubrey, now a fourth-grader at Hickory. Their younger daughter, Avery, is in first grade at Hickory.
Byrd taught at Roye-Williams Elementary School in Oakington and applied to Hickory Elementary when Aubrey was ready to start kindergarten there, as she wanted to “immerse myself in my school community.” Byrd and her husband lived in Edgewood while saving to purchase their “forever home,” which they found in the Kelly Glen neighborhood north of Bel Air, a short distance south of the elementary school.
“I get to teach at the same school where both of my girls go,” she said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Byrd has worked to immerse herself in the communities where she teaches throughout her career. She has kept up with her Severna Park students over the years, watching them graduate from high school and college, then get married and start their own families.
She also recalled, during her time at Roye-Williams, visiting students whose families lived on the Aberdeen Proving Ground Army post, as well as going to their games, plays and birthday parties.
“When it’s a snow day, I’m the one knocking of their doors, telling them to come out and play,” she said.
Byrd sums up her teaching philosophy as, “the kids don’t care how much you know, but they know how much you care about them — caring is what they need first.”
She stressed the need for a teacher to “engage the heart, then you can engage the mind.”
Stinar, the Hickory principal, emphasized the school’s ethos of connecting with students on an emotional level and building relationships with them before focusing on academic achievement.
“She is the embodiment of that [philosophy],” he said of Byrd.
Byrd said she was “humbled and blown away” to be among the five nominees for the county’s Teacher of the Year. As she went through the process, she realized she would “really love to be the voice of teachers.”
“I’m excited to be able to highlight the hard work that we’re doing here in Harford County every day,” she said.
Byrd said she was “still in shock” days after learning she was the teacher of the year in a surprise announcement, noting that “all the teachers I know are working so hard.”
“They’re working tirelessly right now for students,” she said. “I feel like this year, this is an honor that all teachers deserve.”
In class on Monday, students Camden Rush and Sofia Nguyen praised how Byrd helps them and their classmates learn while also giving them time to recreate with activities such as the “brain breaks” and “Math Game Monday.” Camden noted that “she does a good job of teaching us.”
“I think she deserved it, because she’s a really good teacher,” Sofia said.
Both are glad to be back in school, “because we can see our friends, and so you won’t get distracted easily,” Camden said, making the comparison to learning at home.
Sofia highlighted the brain and mask breaks, plus how “we don’t need to click a button on a screen” to talk to their teacher, but can raise their hands to get Byrd’s attention.
“The kids are so engaged, they’re hanging on every word she has to say,” Stinar said of Byrd. “She fills every moment of every day with meaningful activities for kids.”
‘We do hard things together’
Byrd has, during the pandemic, balanced teaching her first graders, whom she calls “children of my heart,” virtually, as well as ensuring her own children were on track with their remote learning.
She worked with her daughters to determine their routines for the school day while at home, figuring out how they could solve problems on their own and when it would be appropriate to come down to the basement — where Byrd was teaching — and ask for help. Byrd noted that her older daughter often helped her younger sister when in need.
She also praised Hickory Elementary families for being “very understanding and supportive,” and HCPS for providing “amazing professional development” and technical support. She also met with each of her students’ families prior to the school year to help get them acclimated to the digital learning platform and determine how to problem solve.
“It was challenging at times but definitely manageable,” she said. “I feel like Harford County provided me with the tools to know how to use our digital platforms, to know how to engage students in online learning.”
Byrd recalled the daily affirmation she uses with her family and students, that “I am smart, I am loved and I can do hard things.”
She emphasizes to her students the idea that “we can do hard things together,” a lesson that her students, family and she all have learned this year.
“We all can grow, and we can do hard things — we’re not alone, we’re a team,” Byrd said. “There was no option this year but to grow; we’re all better and stronger for it.”