Before her students left for a 10-day spring break, Stevens Forest Elementary School third-grade teacher Kimberly Gardner lined them up for treats, stickers and heartfelt goodbyes.
"How many of you are leaving for somewhere?" she asked the departing students, getting individual responses. Then the dismissal bell rang at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, and before she knew it, only one student remained. "Bye, sweetie. Have a good break," Ms. Gardner said.
That kind of care and attention may illustrate why the 23-year-old is one of two county recipients of this year's Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award, which recognizes first-year teachers.
Ms. Gardner and Wilde Lake High School ninth-grade social studies teacher Marcia Leonard will get certificates at a reception next month, said Barbara Allen, staff development coordinator for county public schools.
Each school district may nominate one or two teachers for the local award. The local winners advance to a national competition, at which a winner from each state will receive $1,500.
News of her first teaching award, sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, surprised Ms. Gardner.
She said Principal Wilbur M. Payne Jr. had announced to teachers last month that he had something important to talk about. "I got uptight and nervous," she said, but in the meeting he told her that she had been nominated for the award.
Then, on March 24, Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, Mr. Payne and staff members marched into her class to congratulate her on being a winner. "I was absolutely shocked," she said.
Ms. Leonard, a 1989 graduate of Atholton High School, was similarly surprised. "I was just thrilled that this happened in the first place. There are so many new teachers in Howard County," she said.
The teachers were nominated by administrators and judged on their leadership qualities, ability to motivate students and their rapport with students, staff and parents.
Getting the award is "seeing my hard work and their hard work pay off," Ms. Gardner said.
Sitting in a pupil-sized chair, Ms. Gardner reflected on being a teacher.
"I don't know what made me want to be a teacher," she said. There are no teachers in her family, she said, and although she admires several teachers in the county school system, no one person inspired her to teach. "There were a lot of teachers I thought highly of," she said.
The Wilde Lake High School alumna has already made a quick impression in her brief teaching career.
Staff members praise her teaching abilities, love for children, dedication and leadership qualities, noting how she helped coordinate a recent Family Math night.
Those qualities were evident in her first interview last spring, Mr. Payne said. "The first thing that impressed me was she put the children first," he said. "She didn't say, 'This is what I want.' "
Ms. Gardner was one of 35 to 40 new teachers he interviewed. She is one of three first-year teachers at the school and is among 250 new teachers countywide.
She graduated from Towson State University last year, majoring in elementary education. She began work as a substitute at Stevens Forest in January and became a full-time teacher in September. She lives with her parents in Columbia's Village of Hickory Ridge.
She looks for creative ways to motivate students. For example, she had her pupils use shoe boxes to create scenes from books they had read.
Teaching, she said, goes beyond the curriculum. It includes being responsible and fostering life skills among the students to help them "develop into people persons."
"I think the hardest thing about teaching is I have to realize I can't do everything," she said.
Mr. Payne said he has seen the long days she puts in trying to plan her lessons.
"She wants to be an excellent teacher," he said.
"Third grade is a really big year," Ms. Gardner said, noting that third-graders are developing a sense of responsibility and their personalities.
Her style, she said, is to have all students succeed, whether orally, on paper or through art.
"I give each child a chance to show what they know," she said. "And I give each child a chance to be themselves."