NORCROSS - Walking into teacher Carol Issa's classroom is in some ways like entering a toy store or candy shop.
Brightly colored decorations cover every square foot of space with paper balloons plastered on the ceiling and handmade "guardian angels" hanging on chains that criss-cross the class. Unlike a toy store, all of the dazzling sensory decorations serve a higher purpose: to educate students who are not native English speakers.
Issa's decorations are an extension of her teaching style. She consistently goes above and beyond to help her students learn, and her personality is as colorful as her classroom.
That's part of why she is one of six finalists selected for the school district's annual Teacher of the Year award. She was chosen 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. The overall winner and level winners will be announced at a banquet on Nov. 3 at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth. They will also represent the state's largest school system in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition.
Her natural curiosity about other cultures is part of what makes Issa an effective English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher. She lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for six years when her husband, Nabil Issa, was working for the World Health Organization. Her family has also hosted many people from around the world through Rotary International. They have on occasion had five different languages represented around the breakfast table.
More than half of the students at Meadowcreek are Hispanic, so Issa's international experiences have served her well at the school.
"My classes are so diverse." Issa said. "I've lived in other countries. My husband is from another country. Our home life is completely filled with people from everywhere."
Issa's life has led her to some unexpected places professionally. When she moved to Washington, D.C., it was difficult to find open teaching positions. So instead she decided to pursue a master's degree in nutritional science at the University of Maryland. She expected to spend her life teaching nutritional science.
But after graduation, her family moved to Europe, then to Georgia. Here she got a position teaching elementary school at St. John Newman's School. Though Issa hasn't used her master's degree since, she has never looked back.
"It just happened. Life pushes you. But you know, studying in a different field gave me so much confidence. It expanded my mind," Issa said.
Though she had never previously thought about teaching preschool, a year later Issa found herself doing exactly that. She loved it.
After eight years at Dunwoody Prep preschool, she found the experience had made her a better teacher of any age group. The skills she picked up teaching preschool follow her to her ESOL class, where she often uses interactive tools to help her students grasp concepts.
"You use a lot of visuals," she said. "You use body language. You use a simple idea and you build on that. That's how students learn."
In a typical lesson, Issa helped her fourth-graders identify types of sentences using a song about the differences between declarative, imperative, interrogative and exclamatory sentences. Then she had students make their own sentences by physically rearranging cut-out groups of five to seven words. Finally, they drew pictures with the characters using only specific kinds of sentences.
Though Issa uses many different methods to teach, she always emphasizes the importance of traditional forms of learning. The creative approaches come in when students master the basics.
It's no surprise that Issa's students are eager to express how much they love her.
"Ms. Issa is a sweet teacher," fourth-grader Emma Rosales said. "She teaches well by explaining everything."
According to student Juan Garcia, Issa also accomplishes the seemingly impossible: making her students enjoy their extra work.
"She gives us a whole bunch of homework. But I like doing the homework," Juan said.
With enthusiasm and patience, Issa helps students master language skills. She paces around the room excitedly, making clear with every word and gesture how much she adores teaching. The bold colors of her classroom are only an extension of her own.