Greg Chapman struggled at first in his 11th-grade chemistry class, and recalls failing his first test before teacher Michelle Shearer stepped in, meeting with him regularly before school until the two had found a different way for Chapman to understand complex chemical equations.
Chapman, who graduated in 2000 and has returned to Urbana High School in Frederick County as a calculus teacher, said of Shearer, "She has very high expectations for her students. She gets students to strive to be their best."
For her dedication, Shearer will be honored Tuesday by President Barack Obama as the National Teacher of the Year at a White House ceremony
"It's an incredible honor. It's overwhelming," Shearer said, but added that "teachers don't go into teaching for awards, but it is nice have recognition. It keeps us going."
She is the second Maryland teacher in the past five years to be awarded the nationwide honor given by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Shearer was named the Maryland winner last October and became a finalist in January, competing against teachers from Florida, Illinois, and Montana.
Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, said Shearer is impressive because she teaches at a high level and can find a way to reach every student.
"Science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM disciplines — require effective instruction for students to excel," she said in a statement.
Shearer has been an advocate for STEM education — a statewide focus for public schools — including by promoting programs to get students in early childhood interested in math and science. She said the national honor provides "a great opportunity to get to reach a larger classroom."
The daughter of a chemist and teacher, Shearer said she always knew she wanted to become an educator, but her conviction was cemented after she worked for the New Jersey's School for the Deaf while she was a student at Princeton University. She later earned her master's degree in deaf education from McDaniel College.
She has taught a total of 14 years, beginning at the Maryland School for the Deaf. She spent the last 10 years teaching chemistry at Urbana, where her husband teaches Advanced Placement physics, and where several of her former students have returned as fellow staff members.
"She embodies the best in American education. She is the teacher you don't forget," said Urbana principal Kathy Campagnoli.
Campagnoli said Shearer is particularly adept at relating classroom lessons to student experiences. "She is just incredible in the science classroom," she said.
Shearer has taught all levels of high school chemistry, but since she began teaching the AP chemistry program, the number of students has jumped eight-fold. She was named the 2009 Maryland recipient of the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement Teaching.
Campagnoli joked she could easily understand Shearer's advanced science lessons, even though her background is in English. "Not only can I follow along, I get excited," she said.
When Shearer began teaching chemistry, she said she "knew it would be a hard sell" to many high school students, but for each lesson, she tries to relate it to their everyday lives. "Even young children can understand the basics of chemistry," she said.
She has gotten the groan from students who ask, "Why do we need to know this?" But she said it's a valid question. She said if they can't relate, "then they are more likely to tune it out."
So Shearer says she tries a variety of activities throughout her 90-minute block periods, to keep students engaged. She said her class consists of a lot of labs to give students a chance to experiment with the material.
"She is prepared every single minute of the class," said Chapman, who also credits Shearer as the mentor who encouraged him to become a math major and teach math.
And when he started teaching, and he again turned to Shearer for guidance. When he heard she was named teacher of the year, he said, "I think it's well-deserved and a long time coming."