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Meet the finalists for Teacher of the Year

LAWRENCEVILLE -- When it comes to shaping young minds, one might find many common thoughts on the most effective methods.

An inborn desire to be in the classroom lends itself to the profession as well as the capacity for seeing the world through youthful eyes.

The six finalists for Gwinnett County Public Schools' Teacher of the year share some of these traits, ideas and other feelings.

After being chosen from an elite list of 129 local teacher of the year selections, then selected out of 25 semifinalists, officials feel this group of six is the best of the best at what they do.

A selection committee must still choose three from the group to be the elementary, middle and high school Teacher of the Year as well as an overall 2012 selection. The announcement will be made Thursday during a banquet.

In preparing for this week's big announcement, each of the six teachers agreed to answer questions about their individual philosophies on education.

Sarah Black, North Gwinnett Middle

Middle school students can sometimes be a challenging bunch, but Black said one of the best things about the age group is "you can turn the challenges into advantages."

"Their attention spans can be short, so you have to meet them where they are, energy-wise," Black said.

In addition, Black feels it's an age in which "the kids are trying to figure out who they want to be."

Black joined the system as the orchestra teacher at Lanier Middle in 1997 and later helped open North Gwinnett Middle in 2009. She holds a bachelor's degree in music education from Appalachian State University.

One of the keys to good teaching is "letting the students know that you're a human being ... not just a teacher. Having a sense of humor is a big part of that.

"Once you develop those relationships with them, a lot of it falls into place."

Black said she wouldn't swap occupations with anybody.

"Being a teacher, I think it's the greatest job in the world and the most important job in the world."

Lindsey Cafarella, Peachtree Ridge High

Cafarella also says she's happiest when teaching.

She takes a similar approach to Black's when interacting with her students.

"You've got to really, really care about the students and let them know you care as an actual person," Cafarella said.

Helping students through coursework means "having a variety of different ways to teach a student, because people learn in a lot of different ways."

That means being flexible, not taking anything too seriously and paying attention to details.

Cafarella joined the school district in 2006 at Peachtree Ridge High, where she teaches world history to sophomores. In addition to two undergraduate degrees, she earned a master's degree in social science education from UGA and is working on her doctorate degree in teaching and learning: social studies education from Georgia State University.

Seeing how far her students go later in life is one of the greatest joys of the profession, she said.

"Sometimes they come and visit me and talk to me about how things are going," she said. "I love it."

Jennifer Dunn, Pharr Elementary

Dunn feels that teaching is part of a collaboration with other teachers as well as students.

"There's not a teacher in the world who can do this job without their teammates," Dunn said.

In addition, "being able to bounce ideas off each other in the classroom is essential. It's all about the student and what you can do as a team to suit the kids."

Having a good boss is good too, she said.

"To have a principal who supports you and is willing to listen to ideas," Dunn said. "I do things outside of the box sometimes, and it's good to have a supporter."

She started at McKendree Elementary in 2004. After some time away from Gwinnett, she returned in 2007 as a fifth grade teacher at Pharr Elementary. Dunn is working toward her specialist's degree in curriculum and instruction from Lincoln Memorial University.

She also holds a bachelor's degree in integrating technology in the classroom from Walden University.

Dunn feels that teaching sometimes goes beyond book-learning.

"It's all about seeing the moment when they finally understand something, seeing that moment when they really start to believe in themselves."

Aundrea Muth, Mill Creek High

For Muth, teaching is something she's wanted to do her entire life.

"From my earliest memories, I remember asking friends to play school with me, and I was the teacher," she said. "I've just never wanted to do anything else. It's a part of who I am."

For newcomers to the classroom, Muth offered the following tip:

"The key to success is seeing the kids as people ... looking at your students as individuals," she said. "They are all people who come from different backgrounds with different abilities."

Muth has taught at Mill Creek High since 2006. She teaches political systems and AP government to seniors. Muth earned a bachelor's degree in education from UGA.

Keeping students attentive is as easy as "being excited about what you teach. The kids definitely feed off the energy of the teacher, and the teacher can then feed off their energy too. It works both ways."

Once the kids are excited about school, it makes teaching a whole new experience, she said.

Brittany Palazzo, Mulberry Elementary

Some of Palazzo's earliest memories are of wanting to be a teacher.

"From such a young age, I would recruit all my neighborhood friends to sit in an imaginary classroom and be my students," Palazzo said.

"I would force them to be my pretend students," she said, laughing.

In her real classroom these days, Palazzo encourages her students to "laugh and learn and have fun. I want kids to be able to go home to the dinner table and talk excitedly to their parents about what they did at school."

Added Palazzo: "I want to create a learning experience in a collaborative and interactive environment."

The Mulberry teacher joined the school's staff in 2007 after working at Dacula and Centerville elementary schools. She holds a bachelor's degree in education from Georgia State University and a master's degree from Piedmont College in curriculum and instruction.

She said being good at the job means "being organized, being thorough in lesson planning, taking time to research good strategies and seeing what works."

Added Palazzo: "It's not just a job; it's a place where you're coming to change lives and mold the future. You need to have fun while doing it."

Keri Beth Tidmore Jones, Dacula Middle

For Tidmore Jones, having fun in the classroom means "being willing to try new things ... not getting too set in your ways and most importantly, focusing on the kids."

Keeping students interested means "trying new, innovative strategies. I'm always looking for new things I can show my kids. I want to give them tools they can actually benefit from as well."

Tidmore Jones joined Gwinnett County Public Schools after getting a bachelor's degree in business education.

Since 2005, she has made Dacula Middle her home, teaching computer science and eighth grade yearbook. She also holds a master's degree in integrating technology in the classroom from Walden University.

Teaching and learning both extend beyond the classroom, Tidmore Jones said. "Getting them involved in the community is so important," she said. "Because you're not just teaching them to become good students, you're teaching a group of young people to, ultimately, become a group of well-rounded citizens as well."