ELKTON — For Elkton High School social studies teacher Kelly O’Hara, this year’s homecoming will be a little bit different than the more than dozen before it.

This year, instead of donning purple-and-gold garb for a home football game like she has every year since graduating from Elkton High, O’Hara will be in Baltimore representing Cecil County Public Schools as a finalist for the 2014-15 Maryland State Teacher of the Year title.

“It will be a different type of “Friday night lights” for sure,” she said on Thursday. “I’ll still wear a purple dress or something for school pride though.”

The Maryland State Department of Education announced on Thursday morning that O’Hara was chosen as one of seven finalists for the state title. It marks the fourth consecutive year that CCPS has been represented by a state finalist, including Steven Luthultz in 2013, Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship in 2012 — who also become Maryland Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year finalist — and Rhonda Parsons in 2011.

O’Hara said that she was informed by her principal, John Roush, who interrupted her class to inform her of the honor.

“I was definitely a bit surprised,” she said. “(Roush) got on the intercom afterward to inform the whole school.”

CCPS Superintendent D’Ette Devine said that she too was excited to once again receive a phone call from State Superintendent Lillian Lowery informing her that CCPS had another state finalist.

“We are exceptionally proud of the fact that we have we had four straight years of finalists, and especially that three of those four are Cecil County graduates, including Kelly O’Hara,” Devine said. “I have known Kelly since she was a student and can attest to the fact that this is a well-deserved recognition of her talents and dedication. She will be an excellent representative of our county as she continues through the state competition.”

O’Hara, who is in her 10th year of teaching government, believes that CCPS continues to compete at the state level because of the school system’s systematic support.

“I think we do an excellent job of promoting teachers’ successes, supporting them with the resources they need to succeed and promoting a community of learning in our schools,” she said.

After graduating from Elkton High, O’Hara attended Salisbury University for her bachelor’s degree and then McDaniel College for her master’s degree. She previously said that she knew she always wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps in becoming a teacher and credited her father for instilling a love of learning and, specifically, history.

After graduation, O’Hara returned to her alma mater, where she has taken on a behind-the-scenes leadership role in developing curriculum and leading staff development in addition to teaching government courses.

“This year, we’re stressing inquiry-based instruction, where students are asking questions to learn more about subjects,” she said. “We’ve already had one productive work session on that and we’ll plan more sessions through the year for teachers.”

O’Hara was nominated for the Cecil County Teacher of the Year title by the Elkton High School administrative team, who said that O’Hara models her curriculum around real-world events to give students a better understanding of their studies.

“Through the instructional activities that Ms. O’Hara plans for her Government and AP Government classes, students enjoy learning events that mimic real-world government processes, which help students better understand not only how these procedures operate, but also their greater significance and meaning for the larger society,” they wrote.

Sharon Thomas, a former Cecil County Teacher of the Year who worked with O’Hara at EHS for several years, previously told the Whig that O’Hara is a role model for her students.

“From the first day she came to teach at Elkton High, she had an unusually strong work ethic and attention to detail for someone so young and just starting her teaching career,” Thomas said.

The other state finalists include Erin Doolittle, of Frederick County; Jody Zepp, of Howard County; Jane Lindsay, of Montgomery County; Anna Breland, of Somerset County; Bridget Whited, of Talbot County; and Courtney Leard, of Washington County.

The finalists were selected by a panel of judges from Maryland education organizations representing principals, teachers, school boards, teacher unions, parents and higher education. Finalists were measured against a set of national criteria that include teaching philosophy and results, community involvement, knowledge of general education issues, and suggestions for professional and instructional improvement.

The 2014-2015 Maryland Teacher of the Year will be announced during a gala reception and dinner at Martin’s West in Baltimore on Oct. 10. The winner will receive cash awards, technology equipment, national travel opportunities and a new car valued at more than $25,000.

The winner of the state title will follow in the footsteps of 2013-14 winner Sean McComb, who went on to be named the National Teacher of the Year. He is the third Maryland educator to receive the national honor since 2006.

The Maryland Teacher of the Year will then compete for the National Teacher of the Year award, to be announced in April. The winner will also spend the coming year as a speaker and advisor in Maryland. He or she will also be honored by the president at the White House next spring and participate in several national meetings and conferences.

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