Face of the Week: Gary Werner of the BCPS Office of Science PreK-12

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. “Face of the Week” introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

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Gary Werner faced a big decision.

After 11 years, he had grown to love teaching his Grade 5 class at Gunpowder Elementary School in Perry Hall. He lived nearby and knew so many of the families and their children, went to church where they worshipped, and even coached some of them on his son’s local baseball team.

What’s more, he was a proud son of Perry Hall, a graduate of Perry Hall Elementary, Middle, and High schools, and a local booster of neighborhood projects and programs. His wife, Lori, taught physical education at a nearby religious school.

Now, though, he’d been asked to consider taking his skills as a teacher – especially his love of elementary science – to the county level. As a BCPS resource teacher, he was told, he’d have a chance to share his expertise throughout the school system, and thereby bring his talents to children not only in Perry Hall but beyond.

That was last summer. Fast-forward to March 2018, and Werner’s still teaching, but his students have changed. These days, he spends his time helping elementary science teachers throughout BCPS with professional development, writing curriculum, mentoring younger teachers, and addressing any instructional needs his teachers might have, from providing feedback on their own teaching to modeling lesson plans.

“This was a tough, tough decision,” Werner, 34, says of his choice last year to leave Gunpowder. “But I learned that everyone feels that way when they come out of the classroom. And this was a team I really wanted to be part of; they have such a clear mission. We’re prepping the next generation for success and leadership, and there is such a need for students to understand the lessons that science provides.”

There is one other thing Werner is getting used to: a week or so ago, he learned he is one of only four Maryland finalists for a national Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and the only one from Baltimore County this year. The awards, created in 1983 to recognize exemplary instruction in mathematics and science, go to only 108 teachers nationwide each year and represent the highest honor a teacher can receive from the U.S. government.

“It’s hard to grasp in a way. I like to stay low-key and not talk about myself. So I’ve just tried to sort of take this in stride,” Werner says. “Really, I have to give credit to Gunpowder for this honor. By the time I got these students, the other teachers had built them up and gotten them ready for me and for doing well. So it’s really the other teachers who did this. I just happened to be the culmination.”

Early influences

It’s just like Werner to give others credit. And when he’s not applauding others, he’s praising the nurturing environment of Perry Hall, where he caught the teaching bug early. As usual, he’s quick to give others the assist.

Gary was in Grade 7 when he decided to become an educator, thanks to Mike Connor, a social studies teacher at Perry Hall Middle School. “He was one of those rare teachers who was fun and enjoyable and a little bit zany, but we still learned at the same time,” he says.

Connor may have sparked the idea, but it was John Roland who sealed the deal. As Werner’s high school physics teacher, Roland was “an amazing teacher” who influenced Werner greatly and convinced him to follow his heart into the classroom. “He’s one of those teachers who I just sort of looked at and said, ‘I want to be like him.’ He was an incredible mentor to me.”

Their bond has only deepened as the years roll by. Werner ended up teaching Roland’s son, and the two continue to talk “all the time,” Werner says, “talking about teaching and life.” It was Roland, who still teaches at Perry Hall High School, who nominated Werner for the Presidential Award.

After graduating from Towson University with a degree in elementary education, Werner landed the job at Gunpowder and stayed until last year, when the opportunity to “serve the greater good” arose and he joined the Office of Science PreK-12.

During his time at Gunpowder, though, he says he worked to teach not only science and mathematics and other Grade 5 subjects, but that he also strove to teach students “how to be good citizens.” Growing up and living in Perry Hall, the emphasis on civic engagement came naturally to him.

“I’d have students who would say, ‘Hey, you went to school with my mom or dad,’” Werner says. “Teaching there means you’re invested in the community. You build relationships. And that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to just be a dispenser of knowledge. You want to do more than just show up for class and leave. You want to make sure you are preparing them for success, for the future.”

As coordinator of elementary science for Baltimore County Public Schools, Eric Cromwell sees that dedication daily in Werner, and he saw it when he was still teaching in the classroom, too. “Gary came to the Office of Science after a storied career at Gunpowder Elementary,” he says. “And after working with him and his students, I can definitely say that he asked more of his students than they knew they could give.”

At school STEM Fairs, Cromwell says, he remembers being impressed by the level of achievement Werner’s students demonstrated. “They produced incredible products,” he recalls. “From plastic produced from milk to analyzing elaborate algorithms, Gary’s students demonstrated that we greatly underestimate the potential of our students.”

Staying close to his roots

Despite all the changes in his life recently, though, Werner says he still keeps “one foot in the door” at Gunpowder. While his immediate priority is working with teachers across the county to implement new science standards – the “Next Generation Science Standards,” or NGSS – he still entertains the notion of one day returning to his Gunpowder classroom.

“My last principal, Wendy Cunningham, had this thing where she compared the school to a ship, which was her way of saying that we’re all in this together,” Werner says. “And that’s true. No one’s jumping off, and everyone is committed to these children. The kids want someone to be there for them.”

Implementing the NGSS is a top priority for Werner, who himself has developed and written science curriculum for BCPS. “He has demonstrated a great capacity to re-imagine what science lessons could look like in the age of the Next Generation Science Standards,” Cromwell says.

He also has the high-stakes Presidential Awards to complete, and the process is a lengthy one. Nominated for the award two years ago, Werner had to compile a video record of his teaching with students who are now in the seventh grade, a process, he says, “that forces you to be a very reflective practitioner of what you are doing for students.” After he was selected by a state-level committee, he is currently awaiting directions on the next steps in the process.

“It’s very humbling. Am I proud? Absolutely,” says Werner. “But I’m just part of the team.”

There are, too, other pursuits. Werner enjoys following his 10-year-old son’s exploits in local rec soccer and baseball, for which he coaches, and he maintains an active schedule serving his church and community through volunteer activities. In his down time, he and his son enjoy playing the “Minecraft” video game.

But in the end, so much of Gary Werner comes down to staying close to his hometown roots. “I’m a Baltimore County boy, through and through,” he says. “And I love being this hometown guy. I do see myself going back to the classroom some day; that’s my passion. I don’t see myself in administration, but I do see myself staying in Baltimore County for the rest of my career.

“It’s so rewarding to work in this community,” he adds. “This is something where I can have a direct impact on my community and the future of my community.”

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