Educator was late to class

Teacher of the Year started her career at 42


Susan Casler was working at an international corporation when she was handed a letter that clearly needed some polishing. To help save the author from embarrassment, she gently coached him in crafting a better missive.

It was then, at age 42, that she recognized her true calling.

"I realized that one thing I've always been able to do is be a good writer. And I've loved to read good writing. I realized I could make an impact on others," Casler said.

Fourteen years later, the seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher at Crofton Middle School has been named the Anne Arundel County Public Schools' Teacher of the Year.

It was announced last month at the annual Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce's annual Awards for Excellence in Education dinner. She will receive $1,000 from Comcast, a leased 2006 Hyundai Sonata for six months and $500 from the school system. She will also compete for the title of Maryland Teacher of the Year in the fall.

"I was so shocked," she said. "I just found it incredible. Subsequently, it's turned out to be the highlight of my professional career."

As an undergraduate, Casler thought she wanted to be an art teacher, but she hated her first education course and instead majored in art history. She has worked as a freelance writer and at a travel agency, ran an art program, then went to the Fortune 500 company to do administrative work before finding her way back to education.

"I always felt I had jobs, that I never had a career. Now I have a calling," she said. "I love teaching. It's the toughest job I've done, but it's extremely fulfilling."

Casler started teaching in Anne Arundel County in 1997 and worked at Wiley H. Bates Middle School for three years before going to Crofton Middle. She has been its language arts chairwoman since 2001.

Her principal, Sharon Hansen, nominated Casler for the award.

"She's an outstanding teacher who can work with any child. She has a great deal of knowledge of curriculum and human behavior and motivational techniques," Hansen said. Chris Truffer, the county's director of middle schools, said in an interview: "She's regarded very highly, not just in her school but in other schools as well. She's seen as a very positive force in the Crofton school community."

Casler, who lives in Crofton, said that as soon as she decided she'd like to teach, she found a program at Loyola College where she could start while earning her master's degree. She quit her corporate job and was in front of a classroom a few weeks later.

"I was one shaky person writing on the chalkboard my first day," she recalled. "I still remember the butterflies in my stomach."

Casler now has her master's degree and is certified to be a school administrator. Becoming an administrator is not necessarily a goal, but she believes in continuing professional development as a way to keep improving.

She also tries to instill in her students the importance of education.

"Everyone needs to read and write. If children don't see the reason why it's important, they won't be as engaged," she said. "I try to help them connect their goals to their education."

Casler is known for her hands-on lessons, what she referred to as "multisensory learning," using costumes, food, information from the Internet and other media to engage students.

"Food and middle-schoolers go together perfectly," she said.

Andrew Bilbrey, 12, one of Casler's seventh-graders, recalled when the class had a tea party to mimic a scene in a book. Eating gingersnaps and drinking tea with milk and honey helped him understand the book's characters better, he said.

"She's one of the greatest teachers," he said. "She's a good influence on my learning."

Still, Casler is humble about her new title as Teacher of the Year.

"I accepted this award symbolically," she said. "We're a school system of 5,000 teachers. There are some whose shining moments are never going to be seen by anybody else."

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