Six Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) teachers have been announced as this year’s finalists for the Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year (TOTY) title. The finalists for the 2015-16 honor are Trisha Connor of Harbins Elementary School, Janelle Draper of White Oak Elementary School, Jennifer W. Sevier of Dacula Middle School, Felisha Strong of Richards Middle School, Alix McHardy of Norcross High School, and Emily Heend of Phoenix High School. A selection committee comprised of GCPS educators narrowed the field from the 25 semifinalists who had been selected from an impressive list of 134 local school TOTYs. The committee of former teachers of the year, local school administrators, and central office support staff, now has the difficult task of selecting the 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. That announcement will be made at a banquet on November 10, 2015, at the Infinite Energy Forum (formerly Gwinnett Center), located at 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway in Duluth. The program begins at 6:30 p.m. All 134 local school Teachers of the Year will be recognized that evening.
THE 2015-16 FINALISTS
Trisha Connor of Harbins Elementary School
(16 years in education, all with GCPS)
As a STEM specials teacher, Trisha Connor expands students’ understanding and knowledge about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. She expands her reach by also sharing her energy, passion, and innovative teaching practices with other teachers, saying, “I am impacting an exponentially larger number of students by building the capacity of other educators.”
But, make no mistake… It is the relationships with her students that drives her. She shares, “… the personal connection I make with students on a daily basis in my classroom is an immeasurable part of my contribution. When I consider the gravity of the responsibility I have to those young people, I am both overwhelmed and inspired. What an opportunity to ignite a fire in a child for learning something that will allow him or her to change the world!”
Mrs. Connor joined GCPS in 1999 as a teacher at Stripling Elementary School. During her tenure at the school (1999-2008) she taught 1st grade and technology, and served as a parent coordinator. From 2008 to 2010, she taught gifted education and accelerated mathematics at Magill Elementary School. She joined the staff at Harbins Elementary School in 2011 as a 4th grade and advanced mathematics teacher, transitioning to her current role teaching STEM specials and serving as a technology/STEM coach in 2014.
Mrs. Connor earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education from Georgia State University.
Janelle Draper of White Oak Elementary School
(12 years in education, 5 of those years with GCPS)
Janelle Draper truly believes every child deserves a champion, someone who sees their inherent goodness, ignites their potential, and helps them to achieve their dreams. She explains, “The work I do as an educator goes beyond the walls of a classroom, directly to the heart of the child… Children deserve every opportunity to develop their talents and gifts in a way that empowers them to be leaders in their own lives, and in pursuit of their dreams. As an educator, that is my mission. I do not take it lightly.”
Mrs. Draper is a 4th grade teacher at White Oak Elementary School. She first joined the staff in 2012 as a 2nd grade teacher. Her teaching experience also includes teaching at Buford Academy (2007-2009) where she taught 3rd and 4th graders; and time as a 3rd grade teacher at Sycamore Elementary School (2006-2007) and Mashburn Elementary School (2001-2006).
Mrs. Draper earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgia College and State University and her master’s degree from Lesley University.
Jennifer W. Sevier of Dacula Middle School
(13 years in education, 11 years with GCPS)
Jennifer Sevier says that she never wanted to be anything but a teacher, noting, “It is what I was created to do.” She adds, “I was very fortunate to have teachers throughout my school career who made learning so exciting and real, all while caring about me as a person. I wanted to do that for the next generation of students.”
She has transferred that caring teaching environment to her own classroom as she works to create a positive learning environment. “I truly invest in my students every day,” she says. “… I know them as learners, but I also know their sports, their musical talents, their fears, their hopes, their home challenges… I know them as young people.”
A veteran educator, Mrs. Sevier started her career as an educator at Oakland Junior High School (Columbia, MO) in 2003, teaching 8th grade U.S. History. She joined GCPS in 2005 as a 7th grade language arts and social studies teacher at Shiloh Middle School. In 2008, she transferred to her current position teaching 7th grade language arts and, now, science at Dacula Middle School.
Mrs. Sevier earned her undergraduate degree in Middle Level Education from Maryville University and a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Missouri.
Felisha Strong of Richards Middle School
(8 years in education, 7 with GCPS)
Felisha Strong says that her job description may be teacher, but that she really is an advocate for children. She adds, “If I had to describe my teaching philosophy in one word, that word would simply be ‘empowerment’.” She says, “In my role of empowering students, I am able to inspire young minds, and I feel blessed because, unlike several other professions, teachers have the power to be seed sowers. We have the opportunity to not only plant seeds of knowledge, but we also have the advantage to plant seeds that build character, personal experiences, and more importantly, confidence.”
Mrs. Strong entered the teaching profession in 2008, teaching reading to 4th and 5th grade students at Alps Road Elementary School (Athens, GA). At the beginning of the next school year, she transitioned to the staff of Burney Harris Middle School as a 7th grade language arts teacher. In 2009, she joined GCPS as a teacher at Richards Middle School. While on staff, she has taught 6th and 7th grade language arts, as well as working with gifted students. She currently is a Reading Connections teacher for students in grades 6-8.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Albany State University, and holds a master’s degree from Capella University.
Alix McHardy of Norcross High School
(10 years in education, 5 with GCPS)
For Alix McHardy, the ultimate compliment for her as a teacher is for a student to enter on “meet your teachers” day telling her that they hate science and leave in May saying that her class was their favorite. She shares, “I challenge my students to exceed their own expectations and to practice the art of thinking and wondering… I strike a balance between empathy and rigor, and it allows me to create and maintain strong relationships with my students.” She adds, “The relationships I forged with my kids are what matter. It’s what I remember about all of my favorite teachers, and it’s what my students will remember about me.”
Ms. McHardy joined the staff at Norcross High, teaching Chemistry, Advanced Placement Chemistry, and Biology in 2011. Prior to her work at Norcross, she taught at Fremont Senior High School in Oakland, CA (2005-2010).
She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Agnes Scott College.
Emily Heend of Phoenix High School
(8 years in education, all with GCPS)
Mrs. Heend’s path toward becoming an educator is easily traced back to the early influences of her mother who was a lifelong educator. Later, a college professor required her to prepare and teach two lessons as part of an advanced calculus class and then asked her to tutor other students who were struggling. These experiences helped her realize that she was meant to be a teacher.
She believes her greatest contribution as an educator is her desire to give every ounce of herself to her students and the profession. She explains, “The excitement that I have for learning is contagious. I hope that my enthusiasm will inspire some of my students to pursue teaching and mathematics, just as my college professor did for me. In doing so, I know that I can impact not only this generation of students, but many more to come.”
Mrs. Heend began her career as an educator teaching mathematics at Collins Hill High School (2008-2010). She joined the staff at Phoenix High in 2010 where she teaches math to students in grades 9-12.
Mrs. Heend holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Oglethorpe University and a master’s degree in Secondary Math Education from Georgia State University. She completed her specialist’s degree in Teacher Leadership at Piedmont College.
As the final element of the judging process, the selection committee will complete classroom observations and conduct interviews with the six finalists. Committee members will look for original teaching methods, study the teacher’s teaching philosophy, review special class projects the teacher has initiated, and consider the influence the teacher has had on the teaching practices of her colleagues. They also will review each teacher’s educational degrees and civic activities.
Three of these six finalists will be designated as the elementary, middle, and high school teachers of the year. The Elementary School TOTY, Middle School TOTY, and High School TOTY will be announced the evening of the banquet. The district winner will be selected from among the three level winners and will go on to represent GCPS in the Georgia TOTY competition.
GCPS would like to thank this year’s sponsors for their support of great teachers and for making this celebration of outstanding teaching possible:
Platinum Sponsors: Balfour, Emtec, Hayes Chrysler Dodge Jeep, Horizon Software International, Lifetouch, Peach State Federal Credit Union, and VALIC
Gold Sponsor: IBM
Silver Sponsors: The Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company, HMH, J Smith Lanier & Company, and Kroger
Bronze Sponsors: Celia Brien, Classworks, Corporate Specialty Insignia, EyeMed, Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation, Mellon Global Securities, MetLife, and Pearson.