DAGSBORO — Haley Mears had no hunch, gut feeling, inkling or idea.
She honestly just expected to be sitting in the audience among the other Indian River School District Teacher of the Year candidates, applauding the winner during the ceremony Thursday.
However, lo and behold, it was Ms. Mears — a multigrade Intensive Learning Center teacher at East Millsboro Elementary — who was on stage, the focus of applause and the recipient of gifts, state proclamations and the distinction as the district’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year.
“It was so shocking. I had absolutely no idea,” she said. “Of course, you do want to win. And it’s such an honor. I knew there was such amazing people. We watched the videos, and everybody was just so awesome. I certainly didn’t think it was going to (be) me.
“I don’t know that I do anything super-special. I just go to work and love on my kids and teach them the best that I can. I think that’s what we are all trying to do,” Ms. Mears said.
Selected from a pool of 15 candidates, one from each district school, her award was given at Indian River High, the school from which she graduated in 2005.
“I loved being a student myself. I loved to read and do math. I love making those connections with kids, too,” said Ms. Mears. “I love kids. I love making a difference.”
The awardee began her career as a paraprofessional at East Millsboro Elementary from 2005-09. She has been a teacher in IRSD for 12 years, including stints at Georgetown Middle School and Millsboro Middle School, before returning to East Millsboro.
Her focus in her ILC is grades three, four and five.
“In my classroom, because it’s multigrades, everybody is kind of working on different things,” said Ms. Mears. “We really try to strive to the kids that you shouldn’t compare yourself to anybody else. Always just do your best, and the only person you should ever be in competition with is yourself. My kids make personal goals and work really hard with our support to meet them.”
East Millsboro Principal Karen Clausen explained Ms. Mears’ approach.
“When you walk into Mrs. Mears’ multigrade ILC classroom, you will immediately notice high expectations for learning as you watch her students actively participating in a hands-on, supportive learning environment,” she said.
“Mrs. Mears encourages inquiry, collaborative groups, student discussions and personal goal-setting on both (English language arts) and math. The student comfort level with these activities is clear evidence that these are routine practices in her classroom.
“Dedication to students, a passion for teaching the ‘whole child’ and a commitment to excellence are all characteristics that Mrs. Mears embodies,” Ms. Clausen added. “However, I think the most telling trait is that she truly cares for her students and strives to meet the needs of the individual, while setting high expectations for every child.”
The TOY celebration included a video highlighting winners from each district school: Amy Absher, Lord Baltimore Elementary School; Erin Bullock, Southern Delaware School of the Arts; Karen Coty, Georgetown Middle School; Bethany Flood, North Georgetown Elementary School; Eileen Gartman, Howard T. Ennis School; David Grise, John M. Clayton Elementary School; Christine Hogsten, Phillip C. Showell Elementary School; Sarah Johnston, Georgetown Elementary School; Laura Marsh, Long Neck Elementary School; Shelley McBride, Millsboro Middle School; Matthew McCowan, Selbyville Middle School; Haley Mears, East Millsboro Elementary School; Ashley Rowe, Early Learning Center; Matthew Selba, Indian River High School; and Alina Wrench, Sussex Central High School.
State Rep. Ron Gray, R-Selbyville, presented Ms. Mears proclamations from Delaware’s Senate, signed by Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, and from the House of Representatives, signed by Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro; Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown; and Rep. Gray.
“I congratulate you so much, and you’ve got a wonderful year ahead of you,” Rep. Gray said. “I also want to commend those in the district schools because it’s your commitment to your students that make the Indian River School District such a great place to learn. And I am very proud to have graduated from this district.”
The 2020-21 school year been anything but normal, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been tough. It definitely has been the most challenging,” Ms. Mears said. “But as was mentioned tonight, flexibility is the name of the game. And at the heart of it all is the kids and doing what’s best for them. So we’ve done whatever needs to be done to make sure that the kids feel safe and loved and that they learn the things that they need to learn.”
A member of East Millsboro’s Instructional Leadership Team, Ms. Mears also is a coach for the school’s robotics team and has served as a district Odyssey of the Mind leader for the past seven years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in middle-level English and social studies education from Wilmington University and a master’s degree in reading and literacy from Walden University. Ms. Mears and her husband, Joe Mears, reside in Millsboro. They have two children, a first grader and a second grader, both students at East Millsboro Elementary.
In addition to $500 for classroom supplies, the TOY winner received a statue, a potted plant painted by Southern Delaware School of the Arts students and numerous local gift cards donated by every district school. She also gets to attend an educational conference of her choice.
As IRSD’s overall honoree, Ms. Mears will represent the district in the state Teacher of the Year competition in October. The state winner moves on to nationals.
That honor means a little extra work.
“But it’s worth the honor. It’s nice,” Ms. Mears said. “I’m proud to be part of this district and surrounded by such amazing people. I don’t do this by myself. We all love kids and have great examples to look up to and a great staff. I never imagined that I would be here, but I am super-honored. So thank you.”