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Collins Hill science teacher wins top award

DULUTH - Praised for her enthusiasm and ability to bring science to life, Mai Yin Tsoi of Collins Hill High School is the 2006 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year.

Tsoi was selected for the award from a pool of 105 local school honorees. The announcement was made at the school system's annual banquet held at the Gwinnett Center on Thursday night.

Tsoi's students said she has the ability to make them enjoy their chemistry classes, even if they were never interested in science before. When teaching, she often ties the real-world implications into every topic she covers. During a unit on petroleum, Tsoi had her students make pamphlets on the chemistry of gasoline and its environmental effects to distribute to local auto shops.

Students love being part of "Team Tsoi," and her unpredictable, exciting approach to teaching. Sometimes she will come to class dressed as Urkilala, a paper-eating monster that jokingly threatens students. Her enthusiasm was on display even as she accepted her award, energizing the crowd in her exclamatory praise of Gwinnett schools.

"I am just so lucky to do what I do every day and get paid for it and love it," Tsoi said.

"Those water towers on the highway are right. Gwinnett is great. Success does live here."

Her strong educational background has helped Tsoi become an extremely well-informed scientist. She has a master's degree in organic chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a doctorate in science education from the University of Georgia.

Besides being an effective teacher, Tsoi also relates to her students as if they are her peers. She helped found the first chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving at Collins Hill to ensure students have a forum to discuss alcohol and other issues they may not be able to at home.

Before coming to Gwinnett County, Tsoi taught at the Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Sylvan Learning Center. She continues to teach at Georgia Perimeter College, where she occasionally has some of her former students from Collins Hill.

As Gwinnett's Teacher of the Year, Tsoi will receive an additional $1,000 in her contract for each year she is employed with the school district. She will also represent Gwinnett County in the statewide Teacher of the Year competition.

Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks also announced on Thursday the level winners for Teacher of the Year. Melissa Lawley, a kindergarten teacher at K.E. Taylor Elementary, is Gwinnett's Elementary School Teacher of the Year. Reading Specialist Anne Beatty Crain of Lanier Middle School was honored as the middle school division winner. Both teachers will receive an additional $750 for each year they are employed with Gwinnett County.

Lawley's innovative approach to teaching young children is one aspect that set her apart. She amazed her fellow teachers by demonstrating the "Jolly Phonics" program, which uses hand gestures and sound effects to help kids learn how to read phonetically. It teaches the 42 main sounds of the English language to help students learn through movement.

Her classroom is filled with books and games from around the world that she has personally researched and collected. The educational materials in her classroom are a constant work in progress, as Lawley herself is always working to improve her already excellent skills and credentials. She has National Board certification and is working toward her Teacher Support Specialist certification.

Before she came to Taylor, Lawley taught in Panama City, Fla., for seven years. She holds a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in reading and language arts education, both from Florida State University.

In her acceptance speech, Lawley thanked her 14-year-old son, Christopher, who inspired her to pursue her childhood dream of teaching. She couldn't believe how far she had gotten since she changed paths.

"I never would've imagined 11 years years ago I'd be standing up here. I'm just a little redneck from Panama City," she joked.

Middle School Teacher of the Year Crain is effective as an educator because she identifies the best way each individual child learns, and then uses a variety of reading genres and techniques to improve their reading skills.

Crain is a leader at Lanier, a teacher who passes her skills onto others by leading staff development workshops on improving literacy, and providing tips to both veteran and first-year teachers.

Students come to Crain two or more levels below their grade reading level, but by identifying what they need, she helps them improve substantially. Last year, she helped a little girl learn how to read by using what she loved: cooking. She has gotten many phone calls and e-mails from former students thanking her for their current success.

Crain has a master of arts in reading instruction from Western Connecticut State University and a specialist degree and doctorate from Georgia State University. Before coming to Gwinnett, she taught special education in Connecticut and at a rehabilitation center.

The school district also honored the three other finalists in the Teacher of the Year competition: Jeff Mathews of Parkview High School, Linda Koch of Duluth Middle School and Carol Issa of Meadowcreek Elementary School. All of the finalists will receive a one-time award of $500.

Gwinnett school board members honored the 105 local school Teachers of the Year at the banquet. As each of their accomplishments were read, it became clear how difficult the decision must have been to choose only one countywide Teacher of the Year among the many excellent educators.