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Teacher of the Year 2020-21: Gwinnett search committee narrows field to six finalists
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 2020-21 honor are Lena Alonso of Lilburn Elementary School, Katie Blum of Sugar Hill Elementary School, Kelley Donovan of Coleman Middle School, Julianne Purnell of Five Forks Middle School, Philip Peavy of Paul Duke STEM High School and Danielle Swaby of South Gwinnett High School.
A selection committee, comprised of GCPS educators, narrowed the field from 25 semifinalists who had been selected from an impressive list of 139 local school TOTYs. The committee—which includes former teachers of the year, local school administrators, and central office staff—now has the difficult task of selecting the 2020-21 Teacher of the Year. On December 10, 2020, GCPS will host a virtual celebration honoring this year’s finalists and naming its top teacher.
THE 2020-21 FINALISTS
Lena Alonso, 5th Grade Special Education Teacher,
Lilburn Elementary School
(5 years in education, 2 with GCPS)
Lena Alonso has a passion for teaching and learning that she says continues to grow indefinitely. She adds, “I believe that students learn best when they make connections in their learning with their peers and the world. I often plan scavenger hunts and escape rooms to motivate my students through challenging activities.” Mrs. Alonso says her most significant contribution to education is a research project, Review of the Literature: Adaptive Functioning for Adolescents with Autism After High School, that was published in the National Association of Special Education Teachers, that has helped contribute to the limited research in the field of adaptive functioning skills instruction for adolescents with ASD after graduating from high school.
A teacher since 2014, Mrs. Alonso began her GCPS teaching career in 2018 as a 4th and 5th grade special education teacher at Lilburn Elementary.
Katie Blum, 2nd Grade Teacher,
Sugar Hill Elementary School
(4 years in education, all with GCPS)
Hands-on, role playing, sometimes messy, exciting and rigorous… Those are words Katie Blum would use to describe a lesson or unit that defines her as a teacher. She adds, “I strongly believe that highly effective teaching and learning occurs when students are engaged, hands-on, exploring or problem-solving and are excited about what they are learning. I ensure that education transcends my classroom by intentionally developing and nurturing my student’s curiosity and wonder, critical-thinking skills, and self-efficacy.”
Mrs. Blum started her GCPS teaching career in 2016 at Sugar Hill Elementary School where she taught kindergarten. Later that year, she transferred to Riverside Elementary School where she taught kindergarten, 1st, 4th, and 5th grades. In 2017 Mrs. Blum returned to Sugar Hill Elementary.
Mrs. Blum earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Elementary Education, as well as her master’s degree in Teacher Education from the University of Tennessee. She holds a specialist’s degree in Teacher Leadership from Georgia College and State University.
Kelley Donovan, 6th Grade Humanities Teacher,
Coleman Middle School
(8 years in education, all with GCPS)
Kelley Donovan loves collaborating with her peers because it helps her connect with her students. She adds, “I find that I become a better teacher when I receive feedback and input from other professionals because it inspires me to be better.” Mrs. Donovan also believes that in today’s world teachers have to go the extra mile to connect with students.
“Students must know that their teachers care about them as human beings. And it is so important, in the present day, that our students know we will help them face-to-face or through a computer screen,” Donovan said.
Mrs. Donovan joined GCPS in 2012 as a language arts and social social studies teacher at Duluth Middle School. She transferred to Coleman Middle in 2016. She has a bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in Language Arts and Social Students from Georgia State University.
Julianne Purnell 6th and 8th Grade Health Teacher,
Five Forks Middle School
(7 years in education, all with GCPS)
A Health teacher, Julianne Purnell believes earning her student’s trust is one of the keys to their success. She says, “Students are more willing to learn from teachers who they trust and who they know want them to be successful. I celebrate their achievements, I encourage them to conquer their challenges, and I help them to see their perceived failures as learning opportunities.” Mrs. Purnell’s passion for teaching health comes from her belief that it transcends the classroom. She adds, “The topics I teach my students have an impact on their day-to-day lives and will for the remainder of their life.”
Mrs. Purnell began her GCPS teaching career at Stripling Elementary School in 2013 where she taught Physical Education. She transferred to Five Forks Middle in 2018. She holds two degrees from North Georgia College and State University— a bachelor’s degree in Health and Physical Education with a Teacher Certification, and a master’s degree in Health and Physical Education. Mrs. Purnell also earned a specialist’s degree in Health and Physical Education at Jacksonville State University.
Philip Peavy, Cybersecurity and Game Design Teacher (10th – 12th Grade),
Paul Duke STEM High School
(7 years in education, 2 years with GCPS)
Philip Peavy believes it is important that he establish a classroom that is culturally responsive. He adds, “If students do not feel that they are welcome or that they belong in your classroom, they will not learn. The biggest thing behind the psychology of culturally responsive teaching is that students need to feel comfortable and accepted in your classroom.” Mr. Peavy’s passion for collaborating and helping his peers motivated him to start “Teacher Tech Talk” at Paul Duke STEM High School. It’s an informal monthly session where teachers can collaborate on ways to use technology effectively in the classroom.
Mr. Peavy began his GCPS career in 2018 teaching Introduction to Digital Technology, Computer Science Principles at Paul Duke STEM High School. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Middle Grades Education from the University of Georgia. Mr. Peavy completed his master’s degree in Educational Technology from Boise State University.
Danielle Swaby, Work-Based Learning, (11th and 12th Grade),
South Gwinnett High School
(5 years in education, all with GCPS)
Danielle Swaby says one of her most significant contributions to education so far has been the creation of an Advisory Board at South Gwinnett High, consisting of more than 70 companies. She says, “Since August 2019, the Advisory Board has dedicated more than 280 service hours, to support our students and teachers through guest speaking, collaboration in curriculum design, teacher job shadow offers, student mentoring and more. I have gotten various partners to provide our teachers with job shadow opportunities in an effort to help students learn from real-world business scenarios.”
Mrs. Swaby began her GCPS teaching career in 2015 at South Gwinnett High. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Computer Information from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, a master’s degree in Business Administration from Emory University, and is working on a specialist’s degree in Education Leadership from Georgia State University.
As the final element of the judging process, the selection committee will conduct in-person and virtual visits and complete thorough interviews with each educator. The committee will look for original teaching methods, study the educator’s teaching philosophy, consider the influence the teacher has had on the teaching practices of his or her colleagues, and review any special class projects the teacher has initiated.
Based on their findings, committee members will select an elementary, a middle, and a high school Teacher of the Year. One of the three level winners will be named Gwinnett’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.
GCPS would like to thank this year’s sponsors for their support of great teachers and for making this celebration of outstanding teaching possible.
Peach State Credit Union
Hayes Chrysler Dodge Jeep
Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED, Inc.
Gwinnett County Public Foundation Fund, Inc.
*Pictures of the six Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year finalists are available upon request.