2017 Teacher of the Year: Jamie Lynn McFarland
An elementary teacher who says teaching students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities was her “calling” has been named the 2017 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year (TOTY). During the annual Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year banquet, Gwinnett County Public Schools CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks announced Jamie Lynn McFarland of Rock Springs Elementary School as the recipient of the school system’s highest teaching honor. The announcement took place during the annual celebration on Thursday, November 10, 2016, at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth. In all, the school district recognized 135 local school Teachers of the Year who were joined by loved ones, local school and central office administrators, and the Gwinnett County Board of Education.
Prior to earning the school system’s top honor, Ms. McFarland was first named the 2017 Gwinnett County Elementary School Teacher of the Year. She was selected as Gwinnett’s top teacher from a group of six finalists which included two teachers from each level. Alex Robson of GIVE Center West was named the 2016–17 Middle School Teacher of the Year and Luke Smith of Norcross High School was presented with the 2017 High School Teacher of the Year honor.
The TOTY selection process began at the start of the school year when thousands of teachers from throughout the district nominated and selected 135 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 (McFarland, Robson, and Smith), the other three finalists were Brittany Mayweather of Mulberry Elementary School, Brian Sinyard of Chattahoochee Elementary School, and Lisa Hamilton of Pinckneyville Middle School.
Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year and Elementary School Teacher of the Year
Jamie Lynn McFarland, Special Education Teacher at Rock Springs Elementary
Jamie Lynn McFarland is passionate about helping students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities break through the limits people have placed on them. She says, “Working with my students and their families brings me profound joy, and there is a deep need for people who are passionate about loving, believing in, and teaching students with multiple profound disabilities. I believe that students learn best when they feel a sense of worth and importance and when they feel like their teacher believes that they are capable. My personal teaching style has developed out of my belief that nothing is impossible for my students no matter what their diagnosis may be or what doctors may have said in the past. My students may not learn to do things in the same way as their typically developing peers, but I am committed to figuring out a way for them to be involved and a ways for them to learn.”
Gwinnett’s 2017 TOTY is committed to ensuring that all students receive a quality and effective education. She says, “Being innovative in my instruction is vital to the success of my students as they have limited access to experiences due to their disabilities, medical diagnoses, and the level of care they require. I strive to create opportunities for meaningful experiences for my students. Because my students learn differently, they need to have experiences that are multi-sensory and hands-on. We planned a cooking activity where we followed a recipe to make butter, and a literacy and social studies activity that allowed them to experience life on a farm.”
As an educator, and specifically a special education teacher, Ms. McFarland considers the lack of transitional and vocational services and support for young adults with more significant special needs as they leave the public school system to be a great concern. She explains that completing your public school education should be a time filled with joy and celebration; however for the families of her students it is a time when they wonder what will happen to their child. She says, “They worry about who will take care of their child’s complex needs on a daily basis, what is their child going to do every day, and what will happen to their child when they [the parents] become elderly and are no longer able to care for them.” She believes the answers to these and other questions can be found beginning at the elementary school level. She says, “I want to do everything in my power right now to teach my students the skills they need in order to be successful as adults. I also want to teach their typically developing peers to be kind and accepting toward people with special needs and to recognize their abilities because their peers today will be their community, friends, and, hopefully, employers tomorrow.”
Ms. McFarland joined GCPS in 2011 as a special education teacher at Rock Springs Elementary School. During her tenure at the school, she has taught students in all grade levels. She currently teaches students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities in grades 3, 4, and 5.
Mrs. McFarland earned her bachelor’s degree in Special Education from the University of Georgia.
Middle School Teacher of the Year
Alex Robson, a 6th and 7th Grade Language Arts Teacher at GIVE Center West
Alex Robson is fond of rule breakers but it’s not because he approves of their behavior or likes chaos. Robson is dedicated to rule breakers because he believes they are future leaders and innovators who are not afraid to break the rules. He says “All I have to do is teach them the skills to figure out what rules should and should not be broken. My students come from a long line of rule breakers in society. The Founding Fathers were rule breakers when they declared themselves and their country free. Harriet Tubman violated the oppressive Fugitive Slave Act. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his letters from a Birmingham jail. It takes courage to break the rules, but as a teacher I need to help these students express themselves in an appropriate way.”
Robson says he became a teacher because he wanted to help students have the freedom to choose their jobs, the freedom to live where they wanted, and the freedom to go to college. He explains, “As a teacher, I can help lift kids from poverty not by giving them charity but by showing them the tools to invest and believe in themselves… I am sometimes asked if I would rather work with students who are better behaved. I would never give up my students’ rebellious attitudes. These are the students I have been waiting for — these are the students who will change the world.”
Alex Robson joined GCPS in 2014 as a Language Arts teacher at GIVE Center West. He earned both his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and his master’s degree in the Art of Teaching from Georgia State University.
High School Teacher of the Year
Luke Smith, 11th Grade Algebra II teacher,
Norcross High School
Luke Smith loves a challenge! He enjoys teaching math to students who don’t necessarily like it. He explains, “One of the reasons I will always enjoy teaching math in the college prep level is because there are rarely any students who say math is their favorite subject. This means that each day I am challenged with taking a topic they are not passionate about and creating a lesson that engages students… Each day presents a new challenge as I have students with different learning styles and I’ve got to bring them all together to show mastery of essentials standards… I can think of several students that hated math prior to my class and are now challenging themselves in some of the most difficult math courses offered at our school.”
Mr. Smith uses innovative teaching techniques and technology to introduce and review math concepts with his students. One such interactive lesson he created is called Pokémon — Solving by Square Roots and Completing the Square — Go! Using smart phones, Pokémon Go!, and QR codes he created an engaging lesson that combined popular culture and technology. The activity contained eight levels increasing in difficulty based on the students’ understanding of the content. As a result of the activity, his students increased their knowledge of the math concepts. Robson says, “Creating an engaging lesson, a positive learning partnership, and easy teacher assessment provided students the necessary tools to reach their potential with the content.”
A veteran teacher, Mr. Smith started his career in the Clarke County School District in 2009 as an adapted physical education teacher before spending two years at Eagle’s Landing High School (Henry County) as a special education math teacher. Mr. Smith joined GCPS in 2013 as a mathematics teacher at Norcross High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Georgia.
As Gwinnett County’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, Ms. McFarland will now compete for the Georgia title. She will receive an annual award of $1,000 and the other two level winners will each receive $750 each year, for as long as they are employed with GCPS. The finalists will receive a one-time award of $500. The five finalists who did not win the county honor also will receive a $250 grocery store gift card and gift basket. Each local school winner will receive a one-time award of $200.
Ms. McFarland also will receive a crystal peach, a $500 grocery store gift card and gift basket, a commemorative ring, a laptop computer, and the use of a new car for one year.
McFarland will also be featured in Gwinnett Magazine’s 2017 education issue.
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, Lifetouch, Peach State Federal Credit Union, and VALIC
Gold Sponsor: Georgia United Credit Union, IBM, and The Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company
Silver Sponsors: Classworks, HMH, J. Smith Lanier & Company, Junior Achievement of Georgia, and Kroger
Bronze Sponsors: Celia Brien, EyeMed, Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation Fund, MetLife, Pearson Education, and Performance Matters.
Originally published at Gwinnett Magazine.