Editor’s Note: This is the first in a six-part series profiling the Teacher of the Year finalists for Gwinnett County Public Schools.
With a grandmother who was a kindergarten teacher, a high school teacher for an aunt, and parents who worked in Gwinnett schools, Heather Watkins had a clear career path.
“There really was no question,” said Watkins, a first grade teacher at Mulberry Elementary. “We lived and breathed school.”
As a youngster, Watkins and her grandmother, who helped start the Head Start program in North Carolina, used the grandmother’s large closet of teaching materials, and her grandfather’s employer, Champion International Paper, for a seemingly endless supply of items to play school. Combine that with a younger brother and older brother who her mother said she “managed,” Watkins had plenty of teaching practice growing up.
“It was either going to be medical or teaching,” Watkins said. “But I can tell you, that’s what it was going to be from the very start.”
Watkins has worked in education for 13 years, all with Gwinnett County Public Schools, and was recently named one of six finalists for the annual Teacher of the Year award that will be announced at a banquet on Nov. 7. Watkins is a charter member of the staff at Mulberry Elementary, which opened in 2007, and said technology is a priority as a first grade teacher.
Mulberry Principal Vivian Stranahan said Watkins is popular with her students, and as a graduate of the Gwinnett Teachers As Leaders program, her leadership and commitment to students is evident throughout the school.
“Her classroom is centered on habits of leadership, teaching students to set goals, monitor their own progress to reach success, and to work collaboratively on high level learning tasks,” Stranahan said. “The children especially love the technology-based projects and many opportunities to present their learning.”
She’s also active around the school, Stranahan said, as Watkins puts on the science fair and exploration night, which is a community favorite, and runs a robotics club that mixes science and technology.
Watkins’ family moved to Gwinnett when she was in the fourth grade, and as a shy child, Watkins said her teachers were some of her best friends.
“When you value a child, it really helps to bring the self-esteem up,” she said. “I know my teachers valued me, so I tried to transfer that to my kids.”
Watkins said she attends her students’ baseball and football games, ballet recitals and other extracurricular activtities to make a connection with them.
“Their parents know that I love them as a whole child. I ask all about them,” she said. “Once they know that I care about their child, all the things other than academics, as well as academics, they kind of trust me.”
While she expects to be nervous on the banquet night, Watkins said she is looking forward to celebrating education. The Teacher of the Year process, which started at the local school level at the start of the school year, has been humbling, she said. But it’s also caused her to write about things that she’s passionate about.
“I’ve never had the chance to sit down and write about my life and how I came to decide to be a teacher and all the things I do that add to such a great school,” she said. “It’s just been quite an honor.”