Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Norcross High School's Jay Nebel is named the 2013 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth Thursday. Nebel was announced as one of the county's top educators during the annual Teacher of the Year banquet when the Gwinnett County Public Schools formally honors and thanks its teacher.
DULUTH -- Jay Nebel is used to helping lead championship teams on the hardwood.
On Thursday, though, the Norcross High School girl's basketball associate head coach took home an honor all by himself, one earned through his hard work in and out of the classroom.
Nebel, a local educator since 1996, was named Gwinnett County's Teacher of the Year, ending the months-long process with the school system's most prestigious honor.
"Wow, I didn't think this was going to happen," Nebel said, thanking both of his parents, his wife, his principals, co-workers and fellow coach Angie Hembree.
"I teach at an amazing school," he added, "and we have amazing teachers. We have the most diverse population ... and we make it work because we have an amazing staff."
Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks announced the award for a surprised Nebel during a banquet Thursday at the Gwinnett Center.
The ninth- and 10th-grade world history teacher said he believes he is "responsible for the whole child," and thanked his own 11-year-old daughter for "forcing him" to continue on with the lengthy teacher of the year application process.
"She said, 'You always say never to say I can't. So you better finish this,'" Nebel said with a laugh. "Thank you, Grace, for making me do this.
Nebel, the oldest of six siblings, began his teaching career at Creekland Middle School in 1996 before moving to Norcross High in 2007. At Norcross, he was the co-creator of the school's STARS -- Success Through Academic Rigor and Support -- program, which identifies rising freshmen who are in need of additional support as they enter high school.
The program aims to help make the transition smooth and its ultimate goal is to help students graduate on time. Nebel remains a co-sponsor of the club.
On the basketball court, Nebel helped lead the Norcross girls to back-to-back state championships in 2010 and 2011. He also coached in the Collins Hill cluster, and said it's his responsibility not only to train elite basketball players "but to help raise successful young women."
Thursday's honor is a reflection of the mantra Nebel said he often makes his students repeat out loud: "I am capable of amazing things."
"I teach because every day's different, because every day's a challenge, because every day is exciting," he said. "I teach because I know I make a difference, and that's why we all teach."
"We face heartbreak every day ... and we take those kids and we put them back together and we make them feel good about themselves, and realize how important their success is," he added. "There's nothing more important than that."
Erica Murphy Leach of Walnut Grove Elementary and Heidi Mikulecky of Richards Middle also took home prestigious honors Thursday, being named the system's elementary and middle school teachers of the year, respectively.
Leach has been a Gwinnett educator since 2007, when she was hired at Walnut Grove's first mathematics specialist for all grade levels. She created that program from scratch by writing the curriculum and providing additional in-depth lessons for both students and teachers.
"I believe empowering teachers with ideas I already have implemented in my classroom provides a coherent transition from my classroom to theirs," Leach said.
Leach entered education via the Teach for America program, and called teaching "the most challenging endeavor I have ever undertaken." She has a bachelor's degree in political science from Auburn University.
"I get to walk up and go to work every day, and love and be loved by over 900 students," she said Thursday.
Mikulecky is a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Richards Middle. Born to a pair of educators, she is considered an expert in helping students that speak other languages with their English studies.
By writing curriculum, developing lesson plans and supporting her colleagues, Mikulecky has helped ESOL -- English to speakers of other languages -- students across Gwinnett.
Mikulecky also uses music in her teaching and has even developed a "leveling of texts" process that, in her words, lets "struggling and advanced readers have the opportunity to assess and comprehend the same information."
Mikulecky earned a bachelor's degree in education from Georgia Southern University and a master's degree in education from Georgia State University.
"They said to prepare something to say and I didn't believe them," she said with a smile.
Aside from Leach, Mikulecky and Nebel, the remaining three finalists for Gwinnett's Teacher of the Year were: Celisa Edwards from Dacula Middle, Deborah Johnson of Berkmark Middle, and Dean Landers of Peachtree Ridge High.
Nebel will advance to the state teacher of the year competition.
True to form, he cut his acceptance speech short Thursday, saying, "I've got to get home to grade papers."