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Fresh faces: New GCPS teachers prepare for first year

Staff Intern: Graham Robson Kristen Cox, a seventh grade teacher at North Gwinnett Middle, sets up her English and social studies classroom on Wednesday. She is among 384 teachers newly hired in Gwinnett County.

Staff Intern: Graham Robson Kristen Cox, a seventh grade teacher at North Gwinnett Middle, sets up her English and social studies classroom on Wednesday. She is among 384 teachers newly hired in Gwinnett County.

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Staff Intern: Graham Robson Seventh grade teacher Kristen Cox works on setting up her classroom at North Gwinnett Middle School in Sugar Hill on Wednesday. Cox, a Gwinnett native is a recently graduated from Liberty University in Virginia. Cox puts up posters and maps to create a welcoming environment for children on August 6th, the first day of school.

SUWANEE -- As summer transitions into back-to-school time, the anxiousness and nerves are felt just about everyone.

But perhaps for none more so than first-year teachers, particularly those like Kristen Cox, who will welcome seventh-grade students next week a little more than two months since she graduated from college.

Cox is a rarity among Gwinnett County Public School teachers this year. She's one of 205 brand-new teachers to the district, and the only one at North Gwinnett Middle School.

Cox will teach English, social studies and work in a special education resource center at North. She spent most of last week attending orientations and setting up her classroom.

Yet Cox admitted that she could only do so much to get ready for the students.

"I'm really going to have to be on my toes and be prepared, and let the students know that I'm the authority in the classroom," said Cox, who graduated from Liberty University in Virginia with degrees in special education and elementary education. "I'm not that much older (than the students), but also don't (want to) lose focus from what my primary goal is: To love students and want to see them succeed. It's easy to get lost in all of the other things."

Cox attended a district-wide orientation event for 384 new teachers on Monday at Peachtree Ridge High School. The annual event is where the district outlined its goals and expectations for the teachers, but also boasted that more than 30,000 applications were received for the openings.

"That's a little bit of weight on your shoulders," Gale Hey said, associate superintendent for teaching and learning. "I say that in a good way."

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks noted that GCPS is the 14th-largest school district in the country, and that the district added about 600 students to its enrollment since last year, bringing the total to 162,635.

Wilbanks told the new teachers that they would make a difference in not only the lives of students, but also their parents and community members.

"If your students learn half as much as you learn, it will be all worth it," Wilbanks said.

For Cox, her first job is a homecoming. The Lawrenceville resident grew up in the Collins Hill cluster, and said it's a dream to return to the district where teachers first influenced her to pursue the profession.

"I had a lot of great teachers growing up; I'd love to make a difference, like they did with me," she said. "Teachers that made me want to come to school."

While Cox is completely new, another North Gwinnett cluster school, Level Creek Elementary, has two veteran teachers who are new to the school. Sue Menhorn and Sarah Sargent will teach special education at Level Creek. They previously taught at Walnut Grove Elementary and Mill Creek High School.

Because they have a combined 43 years of teaching experience, they could relate to new teachers like Cox.

"Anytime you go to a new situation, if you're not a little bit nervous, you're probably misinformed greatly," Sargent said. "There's nerves, but it's nerves of excitement. Not anxiousness as much as nerves."

And Menhorn said even veteran teachers go through some of the same transitions as teachers right out of college.

"There's a sense of excitement, because you're starting in a new situation," Menhorn said. "Some things in Gwinnett County are the same, no matter what building you're in. But other buildings, they put other points of emphasis, and that's exciting to be exposed to new opportunities and experiences."

Sargent said her advice to a new teacher, in general and one who may be new to Gwinnett, is to find a buddy.

She also recommends that new teachers not put as much pressure on themselves to sound knowledgeable about every detail of the school or curriculum.

"There'a mentality that you're supposed to know it all," Sargent said. "Just reach out to your resources. Everywhere I've been, people around me have been so helpful. Reach out to those people, latch on, let them kind of carry you as you find your way."

The end of July is an annual crunch time for home projects and to-do lists, Sargent said, as she also tries to prepare her classroom and materials at school.

"I'm going to need every second between now and the morning of Aug. 6," she said.

Added Menhorn, "There's a room down there that's full of boxes that need to be unpacked and organized."

Cox, meanwhile, aims to have a fun classroom where students work on plenty of interactive and hands-on activities.

Seventh grade, after all, was her favorite middle school grade, in part because of a math teacher, who created songs for equations and "always had a smile on his face."

The teacher greeted students at the door and wasn't intimidating, something Cox still remembers.

"He was happy to be there," Cox said. "And that showed."

As a middle school teacher, Cox said she realizes people often have clear opinions of students that age. But she loves the age, because students are impressionable, Cox said.

"In high school, they're already set in their ways a little bit," she said. "Here, I feel like they're still developing as a person, and as a teacher I have a great window to come in and really maybe change their perspective on different things and really impact them."

As for the night before the first day on Aug. 6, Cox doesn't expect to get much sleep.

"I've heard from so many teachers that they have nightmares before each first day of school," she said. "I haven't had any nightmares yet, but I feel like I'm going to. I'm scared I'm going to forget something, I don't think I'll be able to sleep, no."