Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the 2006 Teacher of the Year. She is Kimberly Oliver from Silver Spring.
Michelle Shearer was a pre-med student at Princeton University when, on the verge of burnout, she began volunteering in a class for deaf students. She loved it. That’s when she decided to go into teaching, starting on a path that led her to Frederick County schools and, now, to being named the 2011 National Teacher of the Year.
Shearer, a chemistry teacher at Urbana High School, won the title over three other finalists, from Florida, Illinois and Montana, in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual contest. Her victory was announced Sunday.
On Tuesday, the State Teachers of the Years, from which the finalists were drawn, will be welcomed to the White House by President Obama, along with Jill Biden, a veteran educator and the wife of Vice President Biden.
Shearer grew up with a love of numbers and earned dual certification in chemistry and special education. She has taught all levels of chemistry for 14 years at Urbana and at the Maryland School for the Deaf, where she also taught math.
There Shearer offered, in American Sign Language, a course in advanced placement chemistry for the first time in the institution’s 135-year history. She wrote on her contest application that when she suggested to her students that they also take AP calculus, they asked, “Why?” She signed back, “Because you can.”
With the philosophy that “there is an aspiring scientist in all of us,” Shearer said she captures students’ attention by making real-life connections to scientific concepts.
“Students become eager to explore when they feel connected to the subject,” she said.
Shearer said she is committed to helping children who have traditionally been underrepresented in science, including those with special needs and minorities. She has worked with students with poor vision, dyslexia, dysgraphia, attention deficit disorder and Asperger’s syndrome in her AP chemistry classes.
Shearer plans to spend next year traveling across the country and around the world to promote public education. With the steady drumbeat of negative news about it, she said she will try to make people aware of the many successes in public schools.
“We are proud to have her represent our state and this profession, and we are grateful to her students for allowing the nation to borrow her for the next year,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said in a statement.
Shearer was selected by a committee of representatives from 14 national education organizations from the 2011 State Teachers of the Year, who are nominated by students, teachers, principals and school district administrators.
She said she has noticed changes in students since she began teaching 14 years ago. Today, she said, they are more eager to challenge themselves at younger ages. “I have students in AP chemistry who are in 10th grade. You are talking about students who are 15 years old doing the same level of work as college students.”
Shearer has noticed another change, too. “Students are more savvy, very in tune with technology, and again I think this is an interesting change to note,” she said. “We hear so much about negative changes, but I see some very positive changes. The willingness to take advanced courses at younger ages and challenge themselves is important.”
Shearer is the 61st winner of the National Teacher of the Year title. The last Maryland teacher to take the honor was Kimberly Oliver from Silver Spring, in 2006. Sarah Brown Wessling from Iowa was the 2010 winner.