A high school math teacher who regularly puts students in charge of their learning is the 2022 Gwinnett County Public Schools Teacher of the Year (TOTY). On December 7, Gwinnett County Public Schools announced Lee Allen of Archer High School as the recipient of the school district’s highest teaching honor. This year’s celebratory event was held at the school district’s Instructional Support Center with the Board Room transformed for the evening with colorful balloons and festive lighting to reflect the “Shine” theme. The district rolled out the red carpet for the six TOTY finalists, 19 other outstanding educators who were honored as semifinalists, their guests, and a small audience who attended the celebration in person. The event—which recognized all 139 local school Teachers of the Year—was live streamed and a recording is available on the GCPS website and via the GCPS TV app.
Prior to earning the school system’s top honor, Mr. Allen was named as the 2022 Gwinnett County High School Teacher of the Year. He was selected as Gwinnett’s top teacher from a group of six finalists, which had been narrowed to three level winners. Jamie Garcia Caycho of Arcado Elementary School is Gwinnett’s 2022 Elementary School Teacher of the Year and Taniesha Pooser of Berkmar Middle School is Gwinnett’s 2022 Middle School Teacher of the Year.
The TOTY selection process began at the start of the school year when teachers from throughout the district nominated and selected 139 teachers to represent their local schools. A selection committee later narrowed the group to 25 semifinalists, and finally to the six finalists. In addition to the three level winners—Mrs. Garcia Caycho, Mrs. Pooser, and Mr. Allen—the other three finalists were Kelly Powell of Puckett’s Mill Elementary School, Jenny Stark of North Gwinnett Middle School and Erin Thompson of Brookwood High School.
Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year and High School Teacher of the Year
Lee Allen – 9th Grade Algebra Teacher
Archer High School
8 years in education, 3 with GCPS
Unlike many traditional high school classroom settings, in Lee Allen’s math class, students are encouraged to talk… a lot. Mr. Allen believes in encouraging students to communicate and collaborate with one another, allowing them to take control of their learning which, he believes, keeps students engaged. He adds, “Working in groups is a skill that is developed in my classroom from day one, so my students are strong collaborators. I put the students in charge of their learning, releasing control and acting as a facilitator instead of as an instructor. Equipping students with the ability to learn and problem solve sets them up for long-term success far beyond the classroom.”
Mr. Allen started his career in education in 2014 as a teacher at Northwest Whitfield High School. He joined the staff at Archer in 2019. He describes his path to education, “I arrived in education from an alternative background in the business sector, and I quickly realized that the general population has very little understanding of what so many of our students are dealing with on a daily basis.
“The main reason I changed careers to become a teacher had very little to do with my love for math. My initial interest stemmed from helping others through community coaching and part-time tutoring,” he says. “I quickly fell in love with the everyday challenges that teaching brings and the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of so many young adults.”
His passion to help others has driven him to be what he calls a “responsive” educator. He believes all students deserve the opportunity to learn, grow, and improve themselves no matter their background or learning style. As a result, Mr. Allen is mindful that individual students learn differently, and uses varying methods and tools to ensure he meets students where they are. He incorporates many different types of activities such as scavenger hunts, independent work time, student choice, and tiered station activities that keep students engaged. Mr. Allen explains, “I use student inventory surveys frequently throughout the year to gauge student learning preferences, and I continuously monitor student progress with frequent formative assessment. This allows me to build mixed groups and incorporate different activities that allow students to learn in their preferred style.”
Another facet of being a responsive educator means responding to other educators with whom he works and serving as a mentor to new teachers seeking alternative certification. He shares, “To me, the best way to make the biggest difference in education is to not only respond to the needs of my students, but to enhance the profession as a whole, which starts by helping other educators.”
His responsiveness extends beyond his classroom, as he engages student athletes with real-world community service projects, including building homes for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up a local animal shelter, and visiting a nursing home to sit and talk with residents. “My team completed two projects per year and we average around 30 athletes and managers attending each service project,” Mr. Allen says. “Whether it be through the use of creative classroom assignments, sharing my resources with other educators across the state, or by guiding my athletes in developing their career-ready skills, I am always looking for ways to transcend learning beyond the four walls of my classroom.”
Gwinnett County Middle School Teacher of the Year
Taniesha Pooser – Orchestra Teacher
Berkmar Middle School
11 years in education, 4 years with GCPS
Taniesha Pooser’s classroom reinforces the use of 21st-century skills such as teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and self-discipline. “Music education is one of the finest teaching fields because it creates a natural bridge to learning opportunities that transcend the classroom,” Mrs. Pooser said. “Musical content is used to build bridges to math through rhythm, to social studies through our study of famous composers and time periods, to English Language Arts through vocabulary acquisition and embedded literacy strategies, and to Science through Physics and sound production.”
Mrs. Pooser is a veteran educator with more than a decade of experience. Prior to joining the Berkmar Middle School staff in 2017, she taught orchestra at Longleaf Middle School in Columbia, S.C. Her teaching includes intentional activities that allow students to speak about their experiences and connect with each other’s shared experiences to build community. As part of her efforts to build community among her learners, Mrs. Pooser works hard to establish and maintain a strong connection with her students outside the classroom. She explains, “Each Monday, I conduct informal check-ins with my students to check on their mental health and to ensure they know that I care about their whole lives. I attend basketball and soccer games, LEGO tournaments, and spelling bees to ensure my students know that I am invested in them. In turn, my students are more engaged in the content I teach, and student achievement increases as they learn their AKS.”
That investment in young people extends beyond the ones she teaches in her classroom. She shares that her most meaningful contribution to the profession was when she became the Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the American String Teachers Association, a national organization serving thousands of music educators. She feels fortunate that the organization will pilot two of her community-serving initiatives during its 2022 national conference, which will be held in Atlanta. The first initiative creates opportunities for schools in underserved areas to request professional clinicians to work with their students during the week of the national conference at no charge. The other initiative provides Georgia teachers in underserved areas the chance to nominate up to five minority students to receive a free private lesson during the conference. She explains, “Both initiatives are geared toward providing opportunities for less-fortunate minority students to increase diversity within the orchestra field, spark joy with the students, and decrease the opportunity gap.”
Gwinnett County Elementary School Teacher of the Year
Jamie Garcia Caycho – 1st Grade Teacher
Arcado Elementary School
7 years in education, all with GCPS
One of Jamie Garcia Caycho’s goals is to make learning accessible for all. She empowers students by providing opportunities for them to see their cultures and backgrounds represented in the classroom as well as gain an understanding and appreciation of others’ cultures and backgrounds. She explains, “When children see examples of people that look, talk, or come from places just like them, that affirms that their own backgrounds are valuable and important. I use my students’ home languages to make connections to new concepts, vocabulary, content and skills.”
Mrs. Garcia Caycho has a first-hand understanding of the challenges many families face supporting their children academically as she and her family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was seven years old. As a result of her experiences, she decided to take action when she saw that Hispanic students in her school were underperforming in academic areas in comparison to other groups of students. She explains, “Knowing that I have a unique advantage of speaking Spanish fluently, I initially thought of hosting parent workshops for my class in Spanish, but, through collaboration with my colleagues, this idea transformed into something bigger and better.”
Her initial outreach to her administration, led to the establishment of a parent outreach program called H.E.R.O.E. (Hispanos Esforzandose por Resultados, Oportunidades, y Exito, which translates to Hispanics Making Efforts for Results, Opportunities, and Success). The outreach program consists of administrators, ESOL teachers, the parent liaison, and Mrs. Garcia Caycho and encompasses professional learning for teachers as well as community-building and instructional support for families.
“Throughout the year, the school hosts H.E.R.O.E. nights for families to share dinner, build relationships with school personnel, and participate in workshops led by teachers, all in Spanish,” Mrs. Garcia Caycho says. “These workshops provide families with important information, lessons, tools, and resources that they can use to support their children at home and overall become more involved in school.”
As Gwinnett County’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, Mr. Allen will receive an annual award of $1,000 and the other two level winners will receive $750 each year, for as long as they are employed with GCPS. The three level winners also received a laptop. Finalists who were not selected as level winners received a one-time monetary award of $750. Finalists, other than the county winner, also received a $250 grocery store gift card and gift basket. Each local school winner received a one-time award of $200, a plaque, a TOTY cup, a T-shirt, and a TOTY pen and pencil set. High school TOTYs also received a commemorative ring.
As the overall winner, Mr. Allen also received a crystal peach, a $500 grocery store gift card and gift basket, a commemorative ring, additional one-time cash awards totaling $2,500, and a $3,000 donation to support his school.
GCPS would like to thank this year’s sponsors for their support of great teachers and for making this celebration of outstanding teaching possible.
AIG Retirement Services
IBM and Kyndryl
Coca-Cola Bottling Company United
Hayes Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram
Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation
Junior Achievement of Georgia
Marsh & McLennan Agency, Southeast
The Kroger Company
Celia Brien/R.R. Brien and Associates