A Teacher & Advocate

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Hyunjin Son – 2014 GCPS Teacher of the Year

by Frank Reddy

When you don”t yet know your own talents and abilities, it”s not always easy to believe in yourself.

Students every year file into the classroom, many of them concealing a whole world of self doubt beneath a casual masquerade of emotion. The smiles, shyness, laughs, the barbs of deflected criticism, and the outbursts of sudden anger are a thin skin covering their anxiety. Every student wears it differently.

The 2014 Teacher of the Year for Gwinnett County Public Schools knows that. She”s lived that. And that”s one important attribute that sets Hyunjin Son apart.

At the age of seven, Son”s first scholastic experience in the United States was marred by a public education system that filled her young mind with “frustration and animosity.”

Having arrived in suburban Chicago from Seoul, South Korea, she was excited at the prospect of living in America. As a somewhat atypical immigrant family, they came to the Windy City because her father”s company transferred him.

When Son and her sister arrived at school, administrators put them back on a bus posthaste, transporting them to a neighboring school system with an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program.

Son plays a musical instrument built by one of her engineering students. She said GSMST is an environment where students “feed off each others” differences, rather than gravitating toward becoming stereotypical pupils.”

Unfortunately for her, the ESOL teacher spoke fluent Spanish and not a word of Korean. But the communication barrier wasn”t the problem; it was the teacher”s attitude. “She didn”t treat me and my sister in the same manner and respect she had for the other students,” Son said. “It was a very difficult time. It was a very stressful experience for a young student, and I think that was kind of an inspiration for me. It was a motivational factor in understanding that students come from all walks of life, and they each have different challenges.”

Through this personal journey, Son developed a vast capacity for empathy. “As teachers, it”s important that we teach content. But it”s more important to help students develop confidence and figure out who they are and understand their role in society. It”s my goal to help them feel unashamed of who they are and what they can accomplish regardless of their background.”

The backgrounds of her engineering students at Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology are likely as diverse as the county itself. In her fourth year at the Lawrenceville charter school, Son says she continues to find an inexhaustible supply of inspiration in her students and fellow teachers.

She says she enjoys the culture of GSMST. “It”s different from a typical high school. We don”t have athletics, so we always joke around and say our robotics team is our football team, and our Science Olympiad is our basketball team,” she said, laughing.

She said it”s an environment where students “feed off each other”s differences,” rather than gravitating toward becoming stereotypical pupils. “It”s not about what you wear or what you look like at our school. It”s about the grades. The kids who have good grades are the popular kids.”

While Son talks at length about her school, she talks very little about herself. That”s because she believes the people she works with are the ones who deserve the credit.

“I have this award for teacher of the year, but it has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with the people who surround me.”

Despite that, she was very happy and surprised to be named the district”s top educator in a system employing thousands of other talented, passionate teachers. “I never anticipated it. It was totally unexpected,” she said. “That made it even more special.”

Having garnered such a prestigious accolade, one might be surprised to learn that a career in education wasn”t always a set path for Son. In fact, en route to her first day of teaching nearly a decade ago, she had to pull over.

Driving to Peachtree Ridge High School, she made an emergency stop on the shoulder of I-85 North. She was literally sick with nervousness.

“If you had asked me in high school or college if I would ever be a teacher, there was never a chance I would have considered it,” she said. “It never even crossed my mind.”

Her initial career as a research engineer was successful (her research on finding ways to cool down the body following cardiac arrest earned her a U.S. patent), but she was disappointed by the lack of females in the profession.

“I started to think back to college and high school, and I realized all of my engineering or physics teachers were men,” she said. “I began thinking how unfortunate that was that females didn”t have a positive role model of the same gender to look up to.”

Through this experience, she found ambition to become one of those role models.

“As a teacher, I hope people in the community will see me and be influenced to raise their own children without limiting their experiences based on gender,” she said. “My parents taught me there were no limitations as long as we were willing to work hard.”

It”s a lesson she hopes to instill in her students. “It doesn”t matter who you are, you”re always going to encounter obstacles, but if you”re willing to work through those obstacles you can accomplish anything.”

Added Son: “When someone else believes in you more than you might believe in yourself, that becomes a motivational factor.”

Having been through negative experiences as a young ESOL student, she knows the sting of a teacher”s apathy. Her struggle as a young girl who could barely speak English taught her a very important lesson: more than anything else, young people need an advocate.

And the students of Hyunjin Son reap the benefits of an educator who does so much more than teach. She builds confidence.