Returning as head of the class

Alumni: A growing list of those who have gone through Howard County schools are back in the classroom -- this time as teachers.

August 24, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

In search of her first teaching job out of college, Heather Kim had only one place in mind: Howard County.

As a graduate of its schools, Kim, 21, said her experience as a student drew her back to the place where she grew up. When classes begin Monday, Kim is set to teach second grade at Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel, joining a growing list of alumni who have returned to Howard County classrooms as teachers.

Recalling their experiences as students, several alumni-turned-teachers said they were lured back by the county's quality of life, the school system's strong reputation and an affordable place to live -- their parents' home.

"Howard County was always ideal for me, but it was really competitive so I wasn't sure about whether I would get the job here," said Kim, who graduated from Atholton High School in Columbia four years ago and will live with her parents. "I know that it was a great county, a great school system. I went to the schools, so I know."

She added, "I had a lot of great teachers, and I made relationships [especially] with English teachers. One encouraged me to teach, and she gave me support. I had a fun high school life."

School officials began tracking the hiring trend about two years ago after noticing a growing number of graduates seeking jobs in Howard County, said Susan Mascaro, the school system's manager of teacher recruitment and hiring. "We try to make a point to go out and talk to students [interested in teaching] and encourage them to come back to the system," said Mascaro, who gives presentations to the Future Educators of America clubs at county high schools. "We believe in the homegrown candidates, and they do quite well."

Furthermore, Mascaro said, "They have family here. For us, that means they'll stay longer."

For the coming school year, the school system has hired 52 Howard County graduates, or nearly 10 percent of the 500 hires it expects to make. That is an increase from the 24 alumni hired for the 2004-2005 school year.

Besides the recent hires, there are a handful of former graduates climbing the school system's ranks, including principals and central office administrators. School officials say they take pride in seeing their former students return to the school system and succeed.

For instance, during a recent announcement of staff promotions, school administrators singled out the appointment of Marcy Leonard as principal of Atholton High School. Leonard graduated from Atholton and began her career at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

Atholton graduate

Patrick Saunderson, principal at Marriotts Ridge, the county's 12th high school set to open this month, also graduated from Atholton and began his career there as a track coach and social studies teacher.

"It touches your heart because we invest in our students and come to care about them, and seeing them join the Howard County [school] community, it's very heartwarming," said Sandra Erickson, the school system's chief academic and administrative officer.

Not only do the former students bring knowledge of the school system, but school administrators say they also serve as a model for their students.

"I think one of the benefits is that we're always trying to promote education as a career," Erickson said. "Students see that this is an area they can pursue and succeed in."

Validation seen

Their return also says a lot about the school system itself, Erickson added. "They must have experienced something in the school system that they want to come back and contribute," she said. "It validates our school system that it was a good place to be a student and a good place to work."

Scott Ruehl, the school system's newly named coordinator of secondary mathematics, said he is an example of both claims.

A 1987 graduate of Mount Hebron High School, he came back to his alma mater as a math teacher after graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

For 10 years, Ruehl taught math before he was promoted as one of Mount Hebron's assistant principals four years ago.

`A great reputation'

"I always wanted to come back to Howard County and teach," he said. "They had a great reputation for supporting teachers, for being highly academic, and I had a great experience as a student in Howard County."

He added, "Obviously, Mount Hebron had an atmosphere that made me come back, not just to work in Howard County but work in Mount Hebron."

Ruehl recalled how his student experience helped him in his first year of teaching, a stressful time that was partly allayed by his familiarity.

`The daily routine'

"You knew the daily routine of the school, you knew the community, the traditions of the school," he said. "Anything you could know ahead of time, it's one less thing to learn in your first year of teaching."

Mount Hebron Assistant Principal Jennifer Clements returned to her old high school, Oakland Mills, as a science teacher in 1996. She worked alongside her former teachers, who became her colleagues.

"It sounds corny, but the first time you walk through the teachers' lounge or teachers' workroom, I kind of felt like it was somewhere I didn't belong," she said. "I still referred to them as Mr. so and so or Mrs. so and so. They would tease me to call them by their first names, but it's hard to change those habits."

Now, the situation has reversed with Clements seeing her former students returning as teachers.

Two former students

While interviewing teacher candidates in May, Clements ran into two of her former students.

"It was four or five years since I taught them," she said. "I had a whole new appreciation for the shock and horror of my teachers when they saw me come back."

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