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Teacher of the Year finalist Helfrich: 'I'm completely grateful'

Photo by Ralph

Photo by Ralph

DULUTH -- Jennifer Helfrich says there's no such thing as a typical day in her classroom.

Helfrich a media specialist, teaches in the largest classroom at Radloff Middle School -- the media center. The only parts of her day that are consistent are the beginning, when she helps students produce the morning announcements, and the end, when she has bus lane duty.

"I like the variety," said Helfrich, one of six finalists for Gwinnett County's Teacher of the Year honor. "It's change every day. It's different. I love being able to work with all the grade levels and all the different curriculum levels, content levels."

Sometimes, Helfrich instructs a whole class in a topic such as note taking during research. Other times, she's involved in small group or individual instruction, helping students complete class projects. She also collaborates with teachers,

helping them find resources or use technology. Then there are the days when the only activity is students checking out books.

No matter what the lesson, Helfrich's goal is to help develop students who can be successful and productive in the 21st century.

"I feel very strongly that students need to be information literate and develop their critical thinking skills," she said. "That's really my focus for teaching -- that they need to move beyond the standardized answers. The content, of course, is extremely important but within that content we need to develop logic and deductive reasoning skills. I think that every student is capable of that."

Helfrich hasn't always been an educator. Before she started working in schools, she was a chemist, but the Illinois native started college as a biology major.

"Oddly enough in high school, I did not do that great in chemistry. I was a biology fan," she said. "And physics, we just lived through."

A teacher in college prompted her to change her major to chemistry when she transferred from Southern Illinois University to the University of Illinois.

Helfrich worked in the lab, but after she had children, she switched into procedures and training.

"The material I worked (chemotherapy drugs) with had not been through safety trials, so it was dangerous," she said.

When her family moved to the Atlanta area and her oldest son entered kindergarten at Berkeley Lake Elementary School, Helfrich started volunteering in the school's media center.

Two years later, when her youngest son entered kindergarten, she started taking classes at Georgia State University to get her master's degree.

This is her eighth year as an educator and her third at Radloff. She started her career in education at Berkeley Lake.

When she learned she was a finalist for Gwinnett County Public Schools Teacher of the Year, Helfrich said she was "shocked, surprised, (and) very honored."

"There are so many wonderful teachers that I kind of feel like I'm not sure what it is that I'm doing that seems so different or special," she said. "I think that, especially here at Radloff, I learn every day from the teachers. I learn something new and a new way of doing things. They really inspired me. I'm completely grateful and happy. I hope I can live up to it."