The real reason soon became clear when teacher Debra Howell was called before the entire school and told she is being inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
"Wow," Howell said, taking moments to collect her thoughts. "This is really a thrill. My husband and I have both been in this district for about 27 years and there've been other times where we both could have gone to another school district and we both believe very strongly in the Granite Falls School District."
Howell is the third teacher ever from the state and one of five teachers in the nation this year to be inducted into the hall of fame.
"We hope that your selection stands as an example, representing what can be achieved by doing what you love and giving of yourself," said Mark Andrews of the National Teachers Hall of Fame. "Debra represents what is great in American education today."
Howell, 49, has taught for more than 26 years in the Granite Falls School District. She started teaching at Monte Cristo Elementary School in 1993 and teaches in a classroom that includes fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
"I would never go anywhere else and my kids know that about me," Howell said. "In my classroom, we have a really good time but we learn and we work really hard every single day."
The National Teachers Hall of Fame, in Emporia, Kan., was founded in 1989 to honor elementary and secondary teachers. Nominees must be certified school teachers, active or retired, with at least 20 years of experience in teaching grades pre-K through 12. Inductees receive a permanent display in the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a cast bronze belltower award, a signet ring, lapel pin and $1,000 in materials for their school district.
Howell was selected in March. She will be inducted in June. The four other teachers receiving the honor are from Indiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia.
Howell applied for the honor after learning about it from a 2007 inductee, Geri Rohlff, a teacher at Auburn Riverside High School in Auburn. The women first met when they were finalists for the Washington State Teacher of the Year award in 2005.
The official announcement Tuesday came as a surprise, Howell said.
"It's so incredible to go this far," she said.
Howell team-teaches with her brother, Michael Schireman. Students in the fourth through sixth grades spend parts of their day learning from both Howell and Schireman.
"She has a real unique way of being able to honor the individuality of each one of the students," Superintendent Karen Koschak said. "I watch her move to child to child to child and teach each one at their grade level and move them forward."
Students Kelsey Green, 11, and Bryn Kane, 12, said their teacher deserves the national recognition.
"She's really creative and she's exciting and makes learning fun," Bryn said. "She always makes math fun and is always teaching us fun ways to remember math. Math is one of my favorite parts of the day because of Mrs. Howell."
Several members of Howell's family were at the school to hear the announcement. Howell's husband, Steven, a teacher at Granite Falls High School, said he learned Howell was selected for the honor before the district's spring break last week. Somehow, Steven Howell said he managed to keep the news a secret from his wife.
Howell's daughter, Kaitlan, 18, made the trip to Monte Cristo Elementary from Bellingham where she attends Western Washington University.
"I look up to her so much because I also want to be a teacher," she said. "I come in (to her classroom) and I watch her. She really inspires me ... It's a lot to live up to."
Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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