Teacher of the year: 6 finalists remain in title race

LAWRENCEVILLE - The number of Gwinnett County Public Schools educators vying for the 2009 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year title has been narrowed to six.

One of the finalists - Jodi Sanchez of Bethesda Elementary, Sue Tavernier of Mulberry Elementary, Aimee Burgamy of Trickum Middle, Ken Leach of Collins Hill High, Mike Reilly of North Gwinnett High and Todd Shultz of Phoenix High - will be named the school district's top teacher at a banquet on Nov. 6.

From a list of 112 teachers, 20 semifinalists were chosen. A committee made up of teachers, administrators and central office staff selected the six finalists from the latter group, according to a news release.

To choose the district winner, the selection committee will observe the finalists in their classrooms and look for original teaching methods, special class projects and how the teacher demonstrates his or her philosophy of teaching, the news release states. Committee members will also conduct interviews with the finalists.

Three of the 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.

As the only finalist at the middle school level, Burgamy automatically becomes the winner at that level, the news release states. She joined the school district and Trickum Middle in 2005 after five years of teaching art appreciation to undergraduate students at the University of Georgia. She also taught graduate level art courses at Oglethorpe University. The former art museum curator began her career in education as a high school Advanced Placement art history teacher in Alabama.

"In my art class, students make things," Burgamy said. "But they also investigate, write about and talk about the things they make. ... Additionally, I view art as a means for fostering interpersonal skills development and cultural understanding - essential skills in today's work place."

Either Sanchez, a science specials teacher at Bethesda Elementary, or Tavernier, a reading specialist at Mulberry Elementary, will be named the Elementary School Teacher of the Year.

Sanchez began working in Gwinnett County in 2006 after seven years of teaching fifth-grade students in Illinois and New Orleans. At Bethesda Elementary, she designs and developed staff development sessions each year, sharing strategies with her fellow teachers on how to integrate science into reading and how to teach science process skills in each grade level.

"The best professional development comes from sharing and collaborating with like minds," she said. "I enjoy attending new sessions so that I can be better equipped to return to my school and share what I have learned."

Tavernier helped open Mulberry Elementary in 2007, after 10 years of teaching kindergarten and second-grade students at Dacula Elementary. Before joining Gwinnett, she spent eight years teaching in DeKalb County.

"In my classroom, I vary my instructional approach based on the subject and the needs of the children," she said. "I hold high expectations for the students I teach. It is my responsibility to discover the best approach for educating each individual to guarantee their success in school and beyond."

Leach, a biology and oceanography teacher at Collins Hill High, Reilly, a computer science teacher at North Gwinnett High, and Shultz, a social studies teacher at Phoenix High, are up for the High School Teacher of the Year award.

Leach has dedicated 22 years to teaching science to Gwinnett County students. He worked at Trickum Middle and Meadowcreek High before helping open Collins Hill.

"I have created an environment for learning, an inviting place where everyone loves to visit and look at the various creatures," Leach said of his classroom, which contains 15 aquariums that house turtles, goldfish, plants, frogs, living coral reefs and an alligator. "Because my classroom oozes an atmosphere of inquiry, students ask me questions about the animals, thus knocking down barriers to learning."

Reilly began his teaching career as a mathematics teaching assistant in New Jersey. He also taught math in Virginia and math and computer science in Boston before coming to Gwinnett in 2005. In his classroom, students make video games.

"It captures their attention, their focus, it makes them think about every aspect of the programming project in depth," he said of his teaching strategy. "It causes them to debate about design, usability, function, modification and possibility."

Shultz began his teaching career in 1991 in Oakland, Calif. He began teaching at Phoenix in 2000.

Shultz has integrated technology into his teaching, using the TurningPoint Student Response System software, a product that provides each student with a remote control that allows for interaction to gauge for student understanding. His use of the tool has helped him improve student engagement in his classroom and, therefore, student achievement.

Gwinnett's Teacher of the Year will receive a $1,000 bonus each year as long as the winner is employed with Gwinnett County Public Schools. The two other level winners will each receive a $750 yearly bonus.

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.