Carol Reese cannot imagine doing anything else but teaching. The West Ridge Middle School gifted and talented teacher said she most enjoys watching her students come up with ideas and become engaged.

Reese is one of eight Austin-area educators selected as a finalist for H-E-B’s 2019 Excellence in Education awards. She was among 40 finalists statewide who were surprised at their schools with balloons, cookies, flowers and cash prizes. The nomination came with a $1,000 reward for the campus and $1,000 for the teacher.

“I am grateful to H-E-B for supporting teachers and schools the way they do,” she said. “I am honored and humbled, truly. To be named a finalist. It’s really incredible.”

Reese got her start 42 years ago as a teacher in Wisconsin, where she taught for eight years. She then moved to the Austin area and began substitute teaching for the Eanes and Round Rock school districts. In 1983, she was hired to teach gifted and talented at Hill Country Middle School. When West Ridge Middle School opened in 1987, she was asked to lead the gifted and talented program and she’s been there since.

Reese works mainly with that program but also teaches Above and Beyond, an elective class that focuses on philosophy, law and engineering.

Her students are working on a variety of projects ranging from a history project on West Ridge Middle School to locker room redesigns, an issue her class found was a student concern. Some of her students also tutor students at Barton Creek Elementary School.

Reese also serves as district coordinator for the Destination Imagination International Creative Problem-Solving Organization and sponsor for the Future City Engineering Program, Model U.N., Elementary School STEAM Days, and the Student Stock Market Game. She also serves as a team mentor for the youth organizing the annual TEDxYouth@Austin event each spring.

She said these projects and clubs require communication, collaboration and critical and creative thinking skills -- the makings of a 21st-century learner.

“Our district has a focus on ensuring kids are well-rounded, engaged and healthy,” Reese said. “We are trying to create lifelong learners, and I will do everything in my power to keep that going.”

Principal Dianne Carter said Reese’s programs, clubs and classes create opportunities for kids to be creators, innovators, explorers, discoverers and engineers.

“The amount of time and energy she has invested over the years to give our students an opportunity to learn well outside of the norm is immeasurable,” Carter said. “The impact she has had has undoubtedly changed our world in many ways whether we realize it or not.”

Reese said she tries to take on challenges she finds interesting and hopes others will be interested, too, whether that’s robotics, coding or debate club.

Reese was chosen by regional judging panels made up of former winners, community leaders and administrators. To compete for the state awards, each finalist will be interviewed by a statewide panel of judges.

Finalists are chosen in three teaching categories: Rising Star, for teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience; Leadership, for those with 10 to 20 years of experience; and Lifetime Achievement, for educators with at least 20 years of experience. The program also doles out awards to principals.

Eight winners — two in each category — will be awarded between $5,000 and $25,000, depending on the category. The winners, who will be announced in May at an awards ceremony in Austin, also will receive up to $25,000 for their campuses.

“I love teaching,” Reese said. “I love being here with kids. I love playing with ideas and seeing what they do with them. I think it's just a passion for me. It's been my career, and it's what I love.”