HAMMOCK: High school coaches are teachers first

Jay Nebel, Norcross High

Jay Nebel, Norcross High

When Gwinnett County Public Schools releases its annual teachers of the year list, I quickly scan it for names that are familiar to me.

I admire all of the teachers selected for the prestigious honor and I'm proud to say that my two children have the last two Ivy Creek Elementary teachers of the year, Patty Baxter and Kimberly Hardy, this school year.

In addition to recognizing names like theirs, I find myself looking for high school coaches on the list.

With my job, I get to see the countless hours high school coaches give to young athletes. They coach because they enjoy it and because they want to help kids, and unlike college or professional coaches, their complete focus can't be just on their sports team. They are teachers first, then coaches.

It was neat this year to see that Norcross assistant girls basketball coach Jay Nebel was his school's teacher of the year. Not only that, he was named Tuesday as one of six finalists for county-wide teacher of the year.

I know him as a well-liked, successful basketball coach who has won five state titles at Collins Hill and Norcross and has the distinction of being Maya Moore's eighth-grade coach at Creekland Middle. But apparently he's a heck of a ninth- and 10th-grade world history teacher, too.

"Jay's as popular with the teachers as he is with the kids," said Norcross head girls basketball coach Angie Hembree, who has worked with Nebel at both of those high schools. "I think he could be national teacher of the year. In the classroom, he's dynamic. He keeps the kids engaged and keeps them interested. He has a true passion for what he does that can't be faked.

"Any teacher can know their curriculum, but to be able to engage the kids day in and day out and keep them with you shows that true passion."

The local school teacher of the year honor is the second for Nebel, a 1991 Redan grad who has taught only in Gwinnett in his 17-year education career. He was a language arts and social studies teacher for 11 years at Creekland before moving to Norcross in 2007.

At Norcross, Nebel and another Blue Devil basketball coach, Travis Chapman, have launched the STARS Program to help at-risk freshmen in need of support and encouragement. The two forge bonds with the youngsters through daily meetings, monitoring their grades, involving them in volunteer and extracurricular activities and most importantly taking an interest in their lives. Ideally, it sends these kids on a path to graduation and productive lives.

On top of his work with the program and in the classroom, Nebel does a great job on the basketball court. He manages it all with the help of his wife Debbie and even coaches his daughters, Grace and Addie, in youth sports.

That impressive balance is why I enjoy seeing coaches honored as teachers of the year. They take both roles seriously and do them very well.

"You can't be a good coach if you're not a good teacher," Hembree said. "And he's a great teacher and a great coach."

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock. For Hammock's blog, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willsworld.