Paula Stanton, an English teacher at Bel Air High School as well for the Alternative Education program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, was named Harford County Public Schools' 2018 Teacher of the Year Wednesday.
Stanton's name was called, in a surprise announcement, to cheers from her family and colleagues during the 24th annual Teacher of the Year banquet at the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace.
Stanton, 46, of Belcamp, has been a teacher for 24 years, eight of them with HCPS. She has taught throughout Maryland and in Washington, D.C., during her career, according to a press release from the Harford schools.
"This has been an amazing night, and even if I wasn't Teacher of the Year, it still would have been an amazing night," Stanton said after she was named top teacher.
The banquet is not only a time to celebrate the five finalists for HCPS' top teaching honor — Jillian Lader, the school system's manager of communications and banquet emcee, called them "superstars of the teaching profession" — but to celebrate all teachers and their impact on young people.
"Think about America's future coming in the doors of the teacher's classroom each day," said Darla Strouse, director of the Maryland State Teacher of the Year program and executive director of partnership and development for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Strouse, who travels around the state for local Teacher of the Year recognitions, said "school districts are realizing we really, really need to complement our teachers; we need to put them on a pedestal."
Harford County Public Schools has about 5,000 employees, about 2,900 of them teachers. Stanton was selected out of five finalists.
The other finalists were Stanton's Bel Air colleague, business education teacher Deanna Smith; Harford Technical High School social studies teacher Amanda Roberts; Ring Factory Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Nicole Shank; and Dawn Stone, an art teacher at North Bend Elementary School in Jarrettsville.
A current or former student of each finalist gave a short speech introducing the teacher and talking about the impact they have had on the students' lives.
Alexis Rolle, a 17-year-old senior at BAHS, introduced Stanton. Rolle, of Bel Air, had Stanton for ninth-grade English.
"You guided me and pushed me to be a better student and a better person," Rolle said.
She plans to become a teacher herself and will study early childhood education at Harford Community College.
Rolle said later that Stanton "is someone that I look up to and I strive to be when I become a teacher."
Stanton said the Teacher of the Year finals "didn't feel like a competition at all," recalling that the finalists had dinner the night before the banquet, and each guessed one of her colleagues would be the winner rather than thinking they would win themselves.
She said each finalist wore blue Wednesday night, calling the color "a constant and calming influence in our world." She also noted blue is the signature color for National Autism Awareness Month, which is in April.
Stanton teaches English 9 and 10 in the areas of general, honor and inclusion at Bel Air High, where she is the English Department chair. She is a volunteer member of the school's Unity Campaign Committee, which involves students and staff in "crucial conversations about race and culture and developing lessons that supports HCPS' systematic goal of cultural proficiency," according to the news release.
She also teaches ninth-grade English at the Alternative Education program in Aberdeen.
Stanton said "teaching is tranquility to me," comparing it to flying an airplane high in the sky. She said teaching also comes with an urgency, the same urgency a pilot feels knowing the "need to land the plane with everyone intact."
Her twin daughters, Nyah and Aliyah Reese, work in education. She said Nyah teaches sixth-grade math at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science — a public charter school on the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. — and Aliyah is a teaching assistant at a Harford County day care center.
Stanton told her daughters, who attended the banquet, that she prays they will experience the same feelings she does in teaching, "and I know that you will feel the same sense of urgency for your students."
She said her mother, Paulette King, who is retired from working with people with disabilities, was her first teacher. Stanton credited her mother with setting high expectations and never letting her slack.
Stanton said she wants to spend the next year telling teachers' stories around the state. She said later that she wants to work on teacher recruitment and retention.
Stanton acknowledged the challenges facing teachers — she said she had to go home after the banquet to grade papers and complete lesson plans.
She encouraged her colleagues to push through the hard times.
"Just keep teaching, it all does get better," Stanton said.
Amy Mangold, the reigning Teacher of the Year for 2017, urged the audience to think of teachers who had an impact on them. The early childhood special education teacher at the John Archer School in Bel Air also stressed the need for teachers to tell their stories.
"Never stop sharing your stories in order to have your voices be heard," Mangold said.
Board of Education President Joseph Voskuhl became emotional as he recalled a high school teacher and coach who encouraged and inspired him.
The former Bel Air High principal said the reward of teaching is knowing the long-term impact they will have on students, which might not become evident right away.
"Your influence never ends," he said. "Your influence will stay with the kids you teach today forever."
Wednesday's banquet was sponsored by The Bayou and HAR-CO Credit Union. The Teacher of the Year receives multiple gifts donated by local businesses, including a free one-year lease of a 2017 Nissan Rogue from Jones Junction, a Dell laptop computer, a Saxon's Diamond Centers watch, an NTA Life large-screen television and a ring from Jostens, according to the news release.
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All finalists received $1,200 from HAR-CO Credit Union.