LAWRENCEVILLE - In 1983, Kay Harvey, then a teacher at Norcross High School, was named the Georgia Teacher of the Year.
Harvey, who has retired and now works part time as an assistant principal at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, said her experience as the Teacher of the Year was wonderful.
"I learned from that experience that effective and outstanding teaching occurs in many different ways," she said. "I was able to recognize what makes for an outstanding teacher."
The program, she said, is an important part of building excellence in the teaching profession.
"It's very important for us to recognize excellence and reward excellence and showcase outstanding teaching," Harvey said. "There is no more noble profession than teaching."
On Thursday, Gwinnett County Public Schools will select its Teacher of the Year from a pool of six finalists. The winner will go on to compete in the annual state competition.
Jodi Sanchez is passionate about science now, but when she was in grade school, she didn't like the subject.
"It wasn't inquiry-based. It was textbook, and it was memorization, and I was scared of it," the Bethesda Elementary teacher said. "I had a hard time. ... I had to study a lot. It wasn't until high school when we started doing experiments and we did labs I started to become very interested in the chemical world, in chemistry."
As the Berkmar cluster school's science specialist, Sanchez is an advocate of inquiry-based learning. She teaches kindergartners through fifth-graders, seeing each class for 45 minutes a day for three days in a row. She encourages the students to take a hands-on approach to learning the material.
"Facts are really important, but I believe hands-on really gets them to understand the experience, to make it theirs," she said. "I'm trying to introduce them to those skills that they're going to encounter in middle school. If they have that love of science as a foundation when they get to middle school, they won't be as intimidated and hopefully they'll excel. That's our goal."
Sanchez, who is in her third year at Bethesda, came to Gwinnett seeking a fresh start after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home in New Orleans. The former fifth-grade teach needed a fresh start - and she relished the idea of teaching something she's passionate about.
"I think we're natural scientists. All people are, especially children," she said. "I think it's that one interest level that kids have and don't even know it until you start guiding them down that pathway to self-guided discovery. ... Science is the avenue that helps them understand their surroundings."
When she was a child, Sue Tavernier had difficulty reading, but she now helps struggling students become literate.
"When I became a teacher, I wanted to make sure that I knew how to teach the kids how to read, because I didn't want their self- esteem to be like mine," the Mulberry Elementary teacher said. "So I took my weakness and made it my strength. I did a lot of reading and research to find out how exactly to teach these kids. When I come across a child who's struggling, I won't stop until I find a way to get them where they need to be."
As the school's literacy coach, Tavernier visits six classrooms a day and models lessons for the teachers.
"Last year, I had pulled kids into my classroom, and I decided through reading research that it's so much better to do inclusion," she said. "The kids aren't aware then that they might have any deficiencies, and that's really important to me, that kids see themselves all on an equal playing field."
The former Dacula Elementary teacher said she strives to create a nurturing environment that fosters a love for learning. She also differentiates instruction and develops a plan to encourage all students to master the material.
Tavernier said she felt as if teaching was her calling. She comes from a long line of educators. Her grandfather was the head of her high school's history department, her uncle is a teacher and her sister is a speech therapist in a school system.
"I'm in teaching not to rise to the top; I'm in teaching for the kids," she said. "I work hard at it, but my ultimate goal is not to be named Teacher of the Year. My goal is to make sure that I'm doing what I need to do for those kids."
Aimee Burgamy said she fell into teaching naturally.
"Among the artists there (in art school), a lot of times they have a hard time communicating about what they do. I was in the very natural role of being able to interpret things and make people get excited about art, even art that's kind of avant garde," the Trickum Middle teacher said. "My professors really pushed me toward that because it's a very important skill, being an advocate for the arts."
Burgamy first worked in museum education, where she worked with schools and trained docents who conducted tours with children.
"By default you have to plan what to teach the children, because you're teaching the teachers," she said.
When she moved into teaching in a traditional setting, teaching Advanced Placement art history at Montgomery Academy, Burgamy used museums to get her students energized and excited. For example, she took them behind the scenes to watch as items were unpacked by crates.
Burgamy, who formerly taught undergraduate students at the University of Georgia, now teaches nearly 800 students a year at the Parkview cluster school. The bulk of each period is spent on the production of art.
Her class helps students refine their visualization skills, which can help them succeed in other classes and even build life skills such as the ability to put things together or read a map.
"Kids that may not be able to immediately succeed in other places can succeed here," she said. "The idea is I just want to advocate for the arts, and I feel like young people, if you can capture them in a way, you can get them excited."
Collins Hill High
When Ken Leach put aquariums into his classroom when he first started teaching, his intent was just to create a nice environment.
Over the years, however, he has discovered the tanks break down barriers, making it easier for him to communicate with his students.
"It oozes inquiry. It makes you ask questions," he said. "I'll take advantage of that, and I'll try to teach them something right then."
Leach, a biology and oceanography teacher at Collins Hill High, said he focuses on contextual learning.
"Contextual learning is learning with a purpose," he said. "I make (the students) do real-life science. By doing real-life science, they have to learn the detail to be successful."
The aquariums provide examples of mitosis and the food chain, creating a great environment for learning, he said. He also keeps unusual animals, such as a baby alligator, which students measure to track its growth, and amphiuma salamander.
He also engages his students in projects to keep them actively participating in class. His students recently completed an ecological investigation of the types and numbers of trees on the school's campus. The students had to set up grids and go out and identify, map and count the trees.
Such activities can help Leach incorporate several concepts in one lesson.
"I really don't like to lecture," Leach said. "That's boring for me, and it's boring for them. Learning doesn't have to be sit down, sit down, sit down. It can be active.
"The apathetic student is like a virus, because if you let that sit there, boy, it will just take hold of the whole classroom," he added. "So a teacher needs to plan against that so it doesn't happen."
North Gwinnett High
After a stint as a math teacher, Mike Reilly entered the corporate world to make some money.
He picked up several skills in the industry - Web development, database development and programming. He found, however, that he missed the classroom, so he returned to teaching.
In his computer science classes at North Gwinnett High, he spends five or 10 minutes explaining a concept, and students have the majority of the period to implement, experiment and play with the idea.
"We're in a very difficult time because teachers are not in the digital generation. Students are, and we need a bravery on the part of the teachers to trust the kids to do things differently," Reilly said. "I think we need courage and trust on the part of the community to say, 'Let us try something new here.' The digital generation's just going to grow. The rest of us are going to fade out. We need to make that jump."
Reilly said he thinks it's important to answer two questions most students have: When am I going to use this, and how am I going to use this?
He also tries to push his students to try new things while providing a supportive and nurturing environment.
"Student success - that's why you do it. Maybe it's cliche, but teachers understand it," he said. "I'm in the high school level of teaching because they're making the jump from adolescence to adulthood. ... What I'd really like to do in addition to teaching them something that's very real and very tangible and usable is teaching them that being a grown-up is having the responsibility but still having those same nervousnesses and fears. We just got older and legally responsible for our decisions, but we still feel exactly the same way in our gut."
Todd Shultz teaches social studies, but he's not anything like Ben Stein's monotone character in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
"I wanted to become the opposite of that as much as possible," the Phoenix High teacher said. "When I did my specialist thesis, I did it on student engagement. I wanted to find out more about how I could make my classroom more engaging. I want the curriculum to be meaningful to my students and connect it to their lives and experiences as much as possible."
Research shows traditional teaching methods such as lectures are not as effective as techniques such as cooperative learning, Shultz said.
During a unit on the Civil War, Shultz paired up his students and instructed them to argue about the issues that led up to the war. To make the situation physically uncomfortable, Shultz told the students to interlock pinkies until they came up with a solution to their disagreements. In the end, most groups chose to go to war.
"I like simulations like that," he said. "I think it gives them a better conceptual understanding of that period or those issues."
When he taught in inner-city Oakland, Calif., Shultz asked his students what they wanted to study. Their project on teenage violence and gangs won first place in a Disney-sponsored contest in the state's 9th Congressional District. The judges cited "uncommon success for throwaway youngsters."
"That's why I can believe that all students can learn and achieve high levels. You do have to engage them, though," he said. "As a teacher, I think it's critical that teachers are always trying to use best practices in their teaching and continually improve their ability to engage their students."
SideBar: The Award
· Three of these six finalists will be designated as the elementary, middle, and high school teachers of the year. The county winner will be selected from among the three level winners and will go on to represent Gwinnett in the Georgia Teacher of the Year competition.
· Gwinnett's Teacher of the Year will receive an annual award of $1,000 and the other level winners will each receive $750 yearly, as long as they are employed with the school system.
· The other three finalists will receive a one-time award of $500, and each local school winner will receive a one-time award of $200.