In early February, Attales Middle School fifth-grade teacher Caroline Bell got home from a weekend away with her husband, Chris, to find she had missed a call from the local Masonic Lodge.
Caroline wanted to put off the return call, but Chris, a fellow teacher at Attales who had been part of a committee that secretly nominated her to the Masons as an Educator of the Year, knew what the message meant.
"He said, 'Call him back right now,'" she said. "I called and (a Mason) said that I was named Educator of the Year, and I was shocked."
On March 4, Bell accepted the honor at a ceremony before the Masons of Absecon-based Atlantic Lodge 221, and on March 12, Bell was informed she had been chosen by the eight lodges of the 23rd Masonic District to represent them at the state level with the nominees from the other districts.
The state Educator of the Year will be named in April. Should she win the state honor, Bell will receive a $4,000 grant and the school district will receive a $1,000 grant.
Even before she received this honor, it was clear to those who know her professionally that Bell was born to be a teacher. Still, she took a winding path in getting there.
Bell initially planned to go into teaching out of high school after enjoying her experience volunteering with special needs adults, but was dissuaded from this pursuit by her mother, who said teaching wouldn't offer her enough of a living.
Bell graduated from Rutgers University in 1988 with a degree in communications and public relations, but two years later she returned to her first love, taking a job with an after-school program at Attales.
Soon after, Bell added a gig as a substitute teacher to her schedule, but caring for her three young kids, Rebecca, Zach and Kyle, kept her from committing to the classroom full time for almost a decade. But when Kyle turned 1 in 1999, Bell decided it was time to go after her dream.
As soon as classes began, Bell knew she had made the right decision.
"I knew I was happy," Bell said. "I feel like there was always kind of something missing. I was a mom and I worked, but there was definitely something missing."
Three years later, Bell graduated from Richard Stockton College with her teaching degree. Six months after that, she had a position at Attales teaching computer and language arts.
In her decade at the school, Bell has proven herself one of its go-to staffers, spending long hours before and after school with students, counseling, tutoring and even giving them rides home, Chris said.
Attales Principal Andrew Weber, who met Bell when he joined the school as curriculum director five years ago, said she is a model teacher.
"She's very compassionate and empathetic towards everyone," Weber said. "She does a tremendous amount of volunteering and chaperoning, and she puts in a lot of time before and after school working with kids to help them with whatever they need."
Winning this honor came as a surprise to Bell, who said her devotion to the job stems from a desire to serve her students as best she can.
It's nice to be recognized for her good work, Bell said, but it's the 22 smiling faces who greet her each morning that make teaching more than just a job.
"It's wonderful to receive an award for something that you love to do," Bell said. "Sure, it's work. But I never call it work."
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