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Meet the Gwinnett Teacher of the Year finalists

The finalists for Gwinnett Teacher of the Year are, from left, James Glenn, Joe 
Cox, Jennifer Rolfes, Chuck Lockert, Deborah Stringfellow and Mark Landtroop.

The finalists for Gwinnett Teacher of the Year are, from left, James Glenn, Joe Cox, Jennifer Rolfes, Chuck Lockert, Deborah Stringfellow and Mark Landtroop.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County's Teacher of the Year finalists don't just educate students.

They coach teams, facilitate groups, manage projects and act as cheerleaders.

Six dynamic educators are in the running for the county's top teaching honor. They were chosen from a group of 112 educators who were picked by their peers to be the Teacher of the Year at their respective schools. That group was narrowed to 20 semifinalists, and the six finalists were chosen from that group.

On Thursday, Gwinnett County Public Schools will announce which finalist has been named the Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year.

Elementary School Teacher of the Year: Mark Landtroop

"Learning for all ... whatever it takes."

The motto is prominently displayed in the lobby of Margaret Winn Holt Elementary School, and it's something Mark Landtroop takes to heart.

"I'm a motivator. I try to find what motivates each student," the fourth-grade teacher said. "Every student learns different, and you have to find what motivates the kids. I have to differentiate my instruction to make sure these kids succeed and do well, basically -- here's my catch phrase -- to achieve their maximum potential."

To do that, Landtroop is willing to do whatever it takes, even if that means "using a puppet, like I do, singing completely off key (or) just making a fool of myself."

"The freedom for me to teach however I want to teach at Winn Holt makes it just that much better of an experience," he said, "because I get to do whatever it takes to get these kids where they need to be."

Landtroop's teaching style is very kinesthetic, and he incorporates a lot of movement in his lessons. On a recent afternoon, Landtroop asks his students to stand up for a drill. Then he asks them to complete a series of motions that illustrate the steps to solving a long division problem: divide, multiply, look at, subtract and bring down.

Math was Landtroop's favorite subject in high school, and it's his favorite subject to teach now.

"Because it's not easy for everyone, and you've got to figure out how to break it down to make these kids get it," he said.

Landtroop said he decided to pursue a career in education for three reasons.

One, he said, is because it's "just plain fun."

"It really is," he said. "Every single day brings something new."

Another reason is because his parents are both educators, and education was always valued at home.

"My mom taught early childhood, and I thought I could make a difference like I saw her doing when I watched her," Landtroop said. "I used to see my mom teach and the kids get it -- and to see the light bulb go off in their head, that's the reward right there, seeing the light bulbs go off in their head. I love that. I love it."

Finally, he cites the influence of his fifth-grade teacher.

"She was the type of teacher that you were scared to enter her classroom before you got into it, because she was just so strict and seemed so demanding before you got in there. But when you were in her classroom, you knew she respected, she loved you, she cared," he said. "And that's kind of how I run my classroom. I don't try to scare them before they come in, but I run my classroom this way. You know I respect you, you know I love you, and ... I try to make it a very memorable experience."

Middle School Teacher of the Year: Deborah Stringfellow

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery."

Deborah Stringfellow uses this quote from poet Mark Van Doren to begin her teaching philosophy.

"Is teaching an art of science? In my classroom, teaching is both an art and a science," she writes. "The scientific method is the perfect analogy for part of my philosophy of education and my beliefs about teaching. I think like a scientist when I plan my lessons, engage my students and reflect on my teaching. ...

"I also believe teaching is an art. Teaching requires me to be a visual artist, a performing artist and a conceptual artist."

Stringfellow, who teaches seventh-grade science at Alton C. Crews Middle School, said her peers say she's really good at breaking down information and making it memorable so students can understand it.

"I've got a lot of silly mnemonic devices or silly words that I make up, and the kids (who are in high school now) will come back and tell me ... 'Oh, I remember what you taught me.'

"If I have a gift, that's my gift -- for making it simple and making it memorable."

For example, Stringfellow uses the sentence, "I pinch monkeys at the circus," to help students remember the phases of mitosis: interphase, prophase, metaphase, anaphase and telephase.

Stringfellow said she thinks learning should be authentic and engaging. She also likes to move about the room.

"I think (I'm) pretty rigorous in terms of my demands for the students," she said. "They know I hold them accountable. They don't ever ask me if I'm going to grade it, because they know if they do it, I check it. I look at it. I have high expectations."

When she begins each school year, Stringfellow leads her students through some team-building exercises.

"Before you can teach them, they've got to know that you care about them," Stringfellow said. "If I care about them, then hopefully they're going to care about learning. It's going to be a reciprocal situation. The fact that I try to plan and be organized also helps me be effective. Also that I'm willing to try new things is another huge factor."

Stringfellow said she's never happy with the status quo.

"I always want to learn something new, something better," she said.

Being named Gwinnett's Middle School Teacher of the Year comes seven years after she was named the Elementary School Teacher of the Year for Daleville (Ala.) City Schools.

"It's kind of nice to know that I can do what I did in elementary school and do it in middle school just as effective," she said. "It kind of validates what I tell young teachers that I mentor. A good teacher's a good teacher, no matter where you put them."

High School Finalist: Joe Cox

There's a reason Joe Cox hangs motivational posters inside his classroom.

"Part of the time, I have to be a cheerleader as much as I am a teacher," he said. "I have to get people to get things they didn't think they could flat out do. It is about motivation, largely. I have to make them believe in themselves. AP (Advanced Placement) Physics is not easy. And we've actually been able to assemble a program here at Brookwood that I'm proud of."

Since Cox started at Brookwood High School, the number of students passing the AP Physics B test has increased from about 50 to nearly 150. The number of students making the highest score on the test -- a 5 -- has jumped from about five to about 25.

"You can teach a great physics course and not be happy with your AP Physics results in the end if you're not teaching the right topics," Cox said. "You've got to keep an eye on what the essential curriculum is that you're trying to address. You've got to make learning fun. Kids have to enjoy coming to your class, and yes, you can enjoy coming to physics. That's something we've been able to achieve here at Brookwood."

In his classroom, Cox focuses on inquiry labs and performance assessments.

"For instance ... one of my performance assessments, (students must) calculate the initial velocity of a ball as it leaves (a marble) launcher, and using that initial velocity and the height of the launcher, they have to locate a target on the floor and they have to hit it," Cox said. "Their grade is strictly determined by how accurate they are.

"You would not believe what it does for a student's confidence when they do all this physics. It's like, 'Wow. I learned something. I understand something. I get this.' It's empowering."

Cox said it's important to help each kid find success.

"Success is like currency," he said. "You start helping people find success, they will work so hard for you. They will do anything you ask them. Everyone wants to be successful. You make your kids successful, there's no limit to what you can accomplish together."

High School Finalist: Jennifer Rolfes

When Jennifer Rolfes was in high school, she signed up to be a student aide.

"I wanted to be in the counseling office, and to my shock, I was placed in the moderate special-ed, self-contained classroom," she said. "I was actually really disappointed at the beginning, because I had no idea what that even meant. ...

"Then those kids just changed my life. I just learned so much about them. They were my peers. They taught me so much. It just changed my whole path ... After that experience and how much I loved being with them ... I just knew I wanted to be a part of it and to teach students like that. I declared special ed my major from the time I was a freshman."

Rolfes now teaches a self-contained class for students with mild intellectual disabilities at Mill Creek High School. But teaching a self-contained class doesn't mean the students are confined to a classroom all day.

"One thing that I swear by is getting kids out of my room," she said. "I want my kids out and interacting with the general ed kids."

Her first year at Mill Creek, Rolfes opened a coffee shop in the school.

"My kids have so many goals of vocational skills, working at a relevant rate, counting change and working with money, serving, and interpersonal skills, greeting and initiating conversation," she said. "There's only so much you can teach through role play, because it feels silly. I needed something real."

The students in her class run the coffee shop in the morning, serving students before school begins and making deliveries to faculty members during first period.

After closing the shop each day, the students spend some time in the supply room before returning to the classroom for functional reading and functional math lessons.

"I'm very passionate about it and I'm able to think outside the box, and that's what my students need," she said. "They need somebody that's going to think outside the box and try to figure out how to bring the real world to them. I think I have an energy for it. I think I have a real positive energy with my kids and they trust me, so they trust that what I'm doing is what's best for them."

High School Finalist: James Glenn

During a lesson on icons and iconoclasts, a student asks James Glenn what "ecclesiastical" means. Glenn walks over to the bookshelf, grabs a book and then hands the student a dictionary.

When the student asks why Glenn couldn't just tell him that it means "of or relating to the church," Glenn responds that it's more important for students to learn skills like where to find the answers to questions they have than to know the definition of "ecclesiastical."

Glenn, who teaches world history, world geography, U.S. history, philosophy, law, Advanced Placement Human Geography and AP World History at Norcross High School, said he never made a conscious decision when he was growing up to become a teacher. In college, he studied political science. Upon graduation, he got a job in marketing.

"And I just hated it. It was just not me," he said.

From the first day he started teaching, Glenn said he's never thought about doing anything else.

"Working with the kids is so much better than going into an office every day," he said. "It's an important profession, and it makes a difference. There are good days, and there are bad days, and there are frustrating days like there are anywhere else, but the satisfying days -- I'm more satisfied than anything else I can imagine doing."

Glenn said he strives to make his lessons fun and engaging. He also tries to give his students a reason for what they are learning. But the underlying current that drives his teaching is his belief that education is important and his passion.

"I think that in the (11) years since I've been working, I've learned a lot about the science of teaching," he said. "... As far as another underlying current or theme is the idea that I still think that I have a lot to learn. I'm still growing as a teacher. ... I feel that I'm a good teacher. I think that that's reinforced by my peers and my students, but I also feel that I could be better than I am. I think that fundamental belief is probably one of the more important things."

High School Finalist: Chuck Lockert

Chuck Lockert always had an underlying desire to be a teacher. But when he decided to tell his father, an orthopedic surgeon, "the reception wasn't all that positive," Lockert said.

Instead, he decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and become an engineer.

"After working in engineering for a number of years, I started coming back to that childhood dream of (wanting) to give back," he said. "... So that's what I did -- went back and pursued that teaching dream again. And now I'm able to combine that with the engineering love that I also have."

Lockert teaches grade engineering applications, robotics and mechatronics, and 3-D modeling and analysis at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology. Coming out of the industry, he said his current job is the "perfect fit."

"When I was in high school, there was really no exposure to engineering," he said. "We had shop class. We had welding. It was kind of more vocational, which was OK. There's nothing wrong with vocational, but I wanted to take it to another level.

"When you look at these STEM degrees -- we're taking about science, technology, engineering and math degrees -- 70 percent of the STEM degrees are in engineering and computer-related fields. If 70 percent of the STEM degrees are in those fields, should we not be exposing the students to those careers in high school so they can pick what college they want to go to, get enough feel for what major they want to declare when they get there, and actually prepare them for those challenges?"

In his classroom, Lockert focuses on project-based and inquiry-based labs and projects. He presents students with a real-world application, and they have to figure out how to do it.

"I guess I feel like I'm effective because ... they know I care," he said. "I get that across to them that I really am interested in their careers, I'm interested in their lives and where they're going and what they're thinking about."