Assisting a student with a cognitive impairment as she struggled mightily with a biology concept, Shawn Frederick could sense the girl's frustration was nearing a tipping point.
"I had explained it to her 10 or 15 different ways," recalled Frederick, who is a first-time Howard County special education teacher this year at Hammond High School, but was a paraeducator at Wilde Lake High School, his alma mater, at the time.
"On my last try, she finally said, 'Aha! I get it. I really understand' and I was just elated," said the 2004 Wilde Lake High graduate, still visibly moved as he recounted a defining moment in his life from seven years ago.
"I had made an impact on her and proved to myself that if you put in the work, you can make a difference," he said. "That's when it really solidified for me that I wanted to teach special ed."
Frederick — who is a broad-shouldered 6-foot-4 and looks every bit like the offensive lineman he was in high school and at Georgetown University — is also the new head football coach of the Hammond Golden Bears.
He is one of the 174 teachers hired for the 2016-2017 academic year, according to John White, county public school system spokesman. Of that number, 23 are in special education. The total number of students ages 3 to 21 who are receiving special education services is 5,158 and the total number of special education teachers is 466.
It's been somewhat of a circuitous journey, admits Frederick, who is 30, but his many supporters say he's landed in the perfect place to showcase his talents on and off the field.
Mike Lerner, Hammond's athletic and activities manager, said Frederick is "hungry and ready to lead our up-and-coming program."
Hammond's football team made the state playoffs in 2012 and came close the next two years, while 2015 was "a bit of a down year," he said.
"Shawn is a quality teacher who stresses values and he knows how to help young men grow," said Lerner, who heard Frederick's name from everyone he asked during his search for a coach. "He's the guy you want to root for, and he's in it for all the right reasons."
Frederick credits his alma mater for pointing him in the right direction toward realizing his professional dreams.
"I really loved Wilde Lake," he said, of his four years at the Columbia high school, where he had transferred from Carroll County as a freshman.
"It was a great experience and it really opened my eyes to diversity and to other cultures," he said. "I was welcomed with open arms, and the teachers there really pushed you to excel."
One of those former teachers is Marcy Leonard, Hammond's principal. She taught social studies and was student government association adviser when Frederick was in ninth grade.
"I had the privilege this year of hiring Shawn, whom I've known since the age of 14," she said. "It's great to see him conducting himself as a professional and dedicating himself to special education, which definitely brings its challenges."
Leonard said Hammond will have 1,260 students this year and 16 special education teachers, and she's glad Frederick will be one of them.
"Sometimes people come to education as an immediate calling and sometimes not," she said. "In special education, you've got to love what you do."
After graduating from Wilde Lake, Frederick played football for the Hoyas on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in government, intending to pursue a career in national security. But that was in 2008, when the recession struck.
"The government had downsized and hunting for a [federal] job was tough," he said. "I interned on Capitol Hill, but didn't like it."
That was the year Doug DuVall, who was head football coach and a physical education teacher at Wilde Lake, had called Frederick to say he needed a varsity assistant coach and helped get him get the job as a paraeducator, which he held until 2012.
DuVall, who retired from the high school in 2010 after 37 years, is a huge Frederick supporter.
"They don't make them any better than Shawn," he said. "He was a great kid and a very good player.
"I saw in Shawn a lot of the qualities that are important to being a good coach — he's hard-nosed but compassionate, and he knows when to push and when not to push," DuVall said.
Once Frederick decided to become a teacher, he had to earn his certification. He got a master's degree at McDaniel College in Westminster and was a provisional teacher at St. Francis Academy in Baltimore in 2012. He applied to the Howard County public school system in 2013, but wasn't hired.
Instead, he accepted a job teaching math at the Catonsville Education Center, a high school for students with emotional disabilities that is part of the state-run Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents in Baltimore.
During his three years with RICA he served as junior varsity head coach at Atholton High School for one year and then in the same position at Wilde Lake for two years.
Lori Thalheimer, principal at the center, enthusiastically endorsed Frederick's work ethic.
"Shawn is really an awesome person and teacher, and our kids just loved him," said Thalheimer, who is in her fourth year as principal.
"He's down-to-earth and he easily established a rapport with the students," she said. "He's genuine in wanting to understand what they're going through, yet holds them accountable in a kind way."
Frederick said it was hard to contemplate leaving RICA after he got an email from Lerner out of the blue in January, asking him to interview for Hammond's coaching vacancy.
His wife, Christina, who is also a 2004 Wilde Lake alumnus, was then expecting their first child in a matter of weeks, and he felt unsure about what he should do. But she had no hesitation about what his answer should be.
"She said, 'This is your passion and you've got to do it!'" he said. "She is super supportive and open to being a coach's wife, even though we can get caught up in it and we're always planning game strategies."
Getting the coaching job and then having the special education vacancy open up "was like a perfect storm, and everything just fell into place," he said.
Frederick has big goals at Hammond and a central focus, whether he's working at building skills with students or athletes.
"For me, it's always been about someone's character; that's what resonates with me when I'm working with students," he said. "Show me what your character is — don't tell me."
As for the Golden Bears, "We're going to be rockin' and rollin,'" Frederick said with a broad grin. "I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. We'll just leave it at that."