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Kindergarten teacher uses nontraditional techniques

LAWRENCEVILLE - The 5- and 6-year-olds made "whooshing" and "ooing" noises, waving their arms around like they were playing charades. As their teacher held up an "x" or a "q," all of them clucked and hissed in unison.

They were learning how to read in a nontraditional way from their equally nontraditional teacher, Melissa Lawley, one of six finalists for Gwinnett County's Teacher of the Year award.

This is only Lawley's fourth year at K.E. Taylor Elementary School, but she is already known for her innovative approaches to learning.

Her classroom is filled with books and other materials from around the world, all of which she personally has researched. The "Jolly Phonics" program, which her students use to learn to read phonetically, was developed in England. It teaches the 42 main sounds in the English language through movements and stories.

The school system's annual Teacher of the Year award will be announced at a banquet on Nov. 3 at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth. Lawley was selected from a pool of 105 local school honorees. The winner will receive a $1,000 bonus every year he or she is employed by Gwinnett Schools, among other prizes. He or she will also represent the state's largest school system in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition.

"She's the kind of teacher that takes a lot of pride in her class," Taylor principal Jerry Lehner said. "She is fiercely loyal and owns her class, but she wants her students to own the process of learning."

Though she had wanted to be a teacher when she was a child, Lawley temporarily put that dream on hold. In her 20s, she went to cosmetology school and worked as a hair stylist and Jazzercize instructor. She also spent a year in Germany with her then-husband, who was stationed there with the military.

Parents often influence their children's future careers, but for Lawley it was the opposite. Her 14-year-old son, Christopher, is much of the reason she decided to pursue a career in education. She realized how much she loved teaching him. When he was a child, he often came to

her classes for presentations and projects.

"I really do have to credit my son because I decided when he was born," Lawley said. "It went back to my childhood. And I realized this is what I wanted to do,"

Other Taylor teachers frequently approach Lawley for teaching tips. She mentors a first-year teacher through the Teacher Support Specialist program, offering guidance to both new and veteran educators.

"As first-year teachers, you come prepared. You have the knowledge. But you don't have the classroom experience. It's just the day-to-day experience that she really hasn't had yet," Lawley said.

Though they're still too young to grasp the prestige of being selected as a Teacher of the Year finalist, Lawley's kindergarten students do know that they adore their teacher.

"She's my friend," said six-year-old Haley Stimeling. "She tells me what to do and tells me when to do it."

Little Rebekah Morales affirmed that her parents, as well as kids, seem to be impressed by Lawley. One student, Kyle Feffer, also rushed over to give his input on how much he likes her class. Whether or not she wins the systemwide Teacher of the Year award, she has already won over her students.

n Name: Melissa Lawley

•Age: 40

•Occupation: Kindergarten teacher at K.E. Taylor Elementary

•Residence: Lawrenceville

•Family: has a 14-year-old son named Christopher

•Education: bachelor's degree in elementary education and master's degree in reading and language arts education, both from Florida State University

•Professional experience: has taught kindergarten or first grade at Taylor since 2002, spent seven years teaching in Panama City, Fla., schools, holds national board certification, participates in Teacher Support Specialist program

This is the first in a six-part series profiling the 2005-2006 finalists for the school system's Teacher of the Year award. This year's finalists are:

• Anne Beatty Crain, Lanier Middle School, reading specialist

• Carol Issa, Meadowcreek Elementary, English to speakers of other languages

• Linda Koch, Duluth Middle School, seventh-grade gifted social studies

• Melissa Lawley, K.E. Taylor Elementary, kindergarten

• Jeff Matthews, Parkview High School, chemistry and astronomy

• Mai Yin Tsoi, Collins Hill High School, college preparatory and honors chemistry