Staff Photo: Keith Farner North Gwinnett Middle Teacher of the Year Ashley Rihner made a career change about five years ago from working for a global technology company, to working with students who have intellectual disabilities.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the Teachers of the Year in North Gwinnett cluster schools.
SUGAR HILL -- About five years ago, Ashley Rihner's career took a detour away from a global technology company and into the classroom.
Her second career began in a place where she was comfortable. Growing up in Louisiana, Rihner's mother was a director of a day-habilitation facility, and she has two family members with severe special needs. Being a teacher proved to be more fulfilling than a financial analyst who reported revenue sales.
"I wanted to do more than just add to a company's bottom line," Rihner said. "I felt like I had a better purpose. I always gravitated to the special needs community. Always enjoyed volunteering over the years. At same time too, I started my own family. I was just pulled here, there's no doubt about it. It's been incredible."
Last month Rihner, who teaches students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities, was honored as North Gwinnett Middle's Teacher of the Year. North Principal Wanda Law said Rihner's passion and enthusiasm make her unique.
"Her enthusiasm and passion to give her whole heart to those kids, and not just care, but to teach them about academics," Law said. "Their learning takes place in a little different manner than the traditional student."
Rihner also holds several leadership roles at North Middle: She was chosen to be a countywide mentor in the intellectual disabilities program and works as an advisor to new teachers who use the adaptive curriculum.
Rihner was in the inaugural class of the Teach Gwinnett program, an alternative path for professionals outside of the education field to obtain teaching certification.
"I'm still in awe, there's no doubt about it," she said of the award. "It just confirms to me that I ended up in the right field, the right profession. More than that, I'm truly happy where I am, I look forward to coming to work everyday. Everyday there's something unexpected waiting for us, and I like that."
Rihner began her career at Lanier Middle working with students who had mild cases of intellectual disabilities, but she's taught at North Middle for four years. Seeing her students succeed over the middle school years is both a satisfation and a reward. Because there aren't textbooks for the program, Rihner uses visual and tactical objects to help her students learn in the self-contained environment.
"I see her work with a very small number of students who have a lot of needs. You would never know that from her," Law said. "She is positive. She is enthusiastic. She has them do whatever projects and paths she can have them do. She talks about her students to everybody, and how great they are and what they can accomplish."