Shaper of young lives

Honored: Harford County's Teacher of the Year is a fifth-grade instructor at Fountain Green Elementary.

October 27, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

Howard E. Eakes thought he wanted to be a park ranger. But that was before he directed a junior ranger program and fell in love with teaching.

So Eakes switched gears and accepted a job as a fifth-grade teacher in the Harford County public schools. That was 12 years ago, and Eakes has had no second thoughts about his decision.

"The greatest reward is teaching kids," Eakes said recently. "I get a hand in shaping the future."

Eakes was honored earlier this year when he was named Harford County Public Schools' 2002-2003 Teacher of the Year after numerous letters of commendation were submitted by parents and supervisors at Fountain Green Elementary School near Bel Air.

Described as a compassionate and creative teacher, Eakes, 34, said he likes to share the lessons of life with his pupils. Those lessons involve issues ranging from patriotism to migrant workers to the responsibility each person has for taking care of the environment.

Fountain Green Principal Carol S. Hepler called Eakes a self-effacing and humble teacher who creates a context for learning.

"The gifts he gives to the students every day will last a lifetime," she said.

His classroom resembles a tiny woodland park. It has been called a working science lab because it is filled with aquariums containing various species of aquatic life.

Every year, Eakes learns a new roster of names -- this year 87 of them -- for the pupils who rotate through his classroom for science, math and reading.

"I strive to make a connection with each student, remembering something unique to that child," said Eakes.

That connection continues even after pupils have moved on to middle and high school. Eakes sponsors an informal chess club after school on Thursdays, and it's not unusual for former pupils to show up and take him on in a game.

He considers teaching the "most important profession," with only one drawback -- a lack of time.

"I don't have enough time for my home here at school and for my other home," said Eakes, who lives in Street and is raising two children, Elizabeth, 3, and Will, 2, with his wife, Diane, a former Baltimore County teacher. "It's always a balancing act. If I had a wish list, I'd ask for an assistant who could help out with some of the administrative duties."

He has only one rule in class. It is written on a board on the inside of the door: Treat Others As You Would Like To Be Treated.

Eakes was born in Harford County and grew up when it was "small and rural," he said. He attended Highland Elementary School, now a community center, and graduated from North Harford High in 1986.

He attended Harford Community College, graduated from Towson State University in 1991 and later earned a master's degree from Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, in Westminster.

His first job was at Prospect Mill Elementary, where Hepler was a reading specialist. He has been at Fountain Green since it opened 10 years ago.

When he moved to Fountain Green, he didn't get his first choice for a classroom, but he has finally landed the one he wanted all along -- one with the windows and a door to the outside.

Eakes describes himself as an outdoorsman who likes to ride motorcycles, fish and hunt, and he maintains a deep respect for nature and the environment. Protecting the environment is a lesson he always passes on to his pupils.

During college, he worked as a ranger at Rocks State Park in northwestern Harford County, helping the full-time rangers with rescues, maintenance and nature hikes. It was while helping with the junior ranger program that his career took a different path.

Eakes competed against 15 other instructors for Teacher of the Year. Along with the title came a number of gifts, including the use of a new car for a year and a gold watch, which he proudly wears on his wrist.

Eakes, who represented Harford at the Maryland State Teacher of the Year gala at the end of last month, described the banquet as "the Emmys for teachers," because it celebrated teaching as a profession.

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