From the time he was in the second grade, Ronald Wooden wanted to be a teacher.
While his friends were out playing football or jumping rope, Wooden recruited children to attend his pretend school.
For teaching materials, he dug worksheets, easels and broken pieces of chalk out of the trash bins behind the school he attended, he said.
"When I couldn't get students to attend my school, I would use my stuffed animals," he said. "I carried that passion for teaching with me, and over the years it grew."
Wooden realized his dreams in 1999, when he became a fifth-grade teacher at George D. Lisby Elementary School at Hillsdale in Aberdeen. Last week, he was named the 2008 Harford County Teacher of the Year.
"Teaching is what Ron was born to do," said Patricia Skebeck, executive director for elementary education for Harford County Public Schools for the past 12 years. "From the beginning, you could see that teaching came very natural for him. He knows how to pick that teachable moment."
Born in Philadelphia, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. His mother was on drugs, and his father lived with his family across town, he said.
"My grandparents expected the best of me," he said. "They didn't allow misbehavior, and they wanted me to succeed."
Wooden's passion for teaching was sparked by Joan Godwin, his second grade teacher at Add B Anderson Elementary School.
"She always made time to teach every student collectively and independently," Wooden said. "She inspired me every day. She taught me my three favorite words - inspire, motivate and cultivate."
They continued their relationship after he was promoted to third grade. He helped her after school and when they finished, she drove him home, though he lived directly across the street, he said.
During the next few years, school became more difficult for him, he said. He failed the fourth grade.
"I struggled with math, and I was a terror that year," he said. But he passed summer school and moved on to fifth grade. In middle school, he struggled with history, and once again he turned to Godwin for help.
"She taught me study habits," he said. "She helped me, and I did better in school after that."
In high school, he studied opera and music, he said.
"High school allowed me to shine," he said. "I got to find out who I was during high school."
After graduating from high school, he earned his bachelor's degree in 1999 in elementary education from Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa. He also completed a master's in leadership and teaching from the College of Notre Dame in Maryland in December 2007.
Wooden was hired in Harford County by chance, he said. When school system officials visited Lincoln University, he and a friend received a mock interview, he said. The next day, Harford County school officials called the two young men and shortly afterward hired both of them, he said.
Teaching has given Wooden a chance to help children and other teachers, he said.
"I try to empower children to be successful, and I try to empower teachers to put forth their best effort to educate children," he said.
He's a wonderful teacher, said Pam Peterson, a physical education teacher at George D. Lisby.
"Mr. Wooden teaches the children to think outside the box," Peterson said. "He is always debating them and asking questions about their answers. He isn't trying to prove them wrong; he's just trying to make them think about why they're right."
Francine Higbee, also a fifth-grade teacher at the school, nominated Wooden for Teacher of the Year because he inspires everyone around him, she said.
"He is a great teacher," said Higbee, a 17-year veteran teacher. "He works at the school from sun up to sun down. He mentors teachers and gets the students excited about learning."
Wooden shares his life experiences to show the children he knows where they are coming from, he said.
"Many students that attend this school come from poverty, and they live in unsafe neighborhoods," he said. "The lives of some of these children are very different than the typical child. It's totally different when kids have their own parents raising them. Many of these kids have grandparents raising them, and so did I."
Wooden shares the story of his younger brother, Taris Wooden, who was murdered about four years ago in Philadelphia, he said.
"I tell the students that my brother was murdered because he didn't make good choices," he said. "He chose friends who were not a good influence. I tell the students about my brother to try to get them to understand how important it is to pick the right group of friends."
To reach even more students, he heads two after school programs for at-risk boys.
This year, he started a program for boys at the school called "Acorns to Oaks," that is offered in two 30-minute sessions - once for fourth-graders, and once for fifth-graders.
During each session the boys, or acorns, discuss what's going on at home and at school. They set goals, make schedules and learn about leadership, Wooden said. When they go to middle school, they become oaks, he said.
The second program is a state initiative called 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Through this program, latchkey children who are struggling academically, participate in enrichment activities, including robotics, readers theater, art, math, reading and science, Wooden said.
When Wooden learned he was selected as Teacher of the Year, he was humbled. But Harmony Welsh, a student in his class, knew her teacher was going to win, she said.
"He's just a super teacher," said Harmony, 10, of Aberdeen. "He knows when we have bad days, and he always cheers us up. He plays games with us and wants us to exercise and get rest at night. He explains hard stuff so we can understand it."
He sets the students up to succeed, said Victoria French, 10, of Aberdeen, also a student in his class. "He challenges us, but if the challenge is too hard, he lowers the challenge so we can all do it," she said. "He's not like other teachers, he adds humor. And he relates things to himself. He treats us like friends, not students."
Accolades aren't what keep him coming back for more, he said. It's reaching the children.
"When I leave at the end of a school day, I walk past the playground and students are out there playing basketball," he said. "They call out, 'What's up, Mr. Wooden?' Or they come up and give me a high five or a hug. I know that if nothing else, I have earned their respect. That makes it all worthwhile to me."