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Teacher of the Year 2021-22: Gwinnett search committee narrows field to six finalists
November 11, 2021
Six Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) teachers have been selected as this year’s finalists for the Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year (TOTY) title. The finalists for the 2021-22 honor are Jamie Garcia Caycho of Arcado Elementary School, Kelly Powell of Puckett’s Mill Elementary School, Taniesha Pooser of Berkmar Middle School, Jenny Stark of North Gwinnett Middle School, Lee Allen of Archer High School, and Erin Thompson of Brookwood 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 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. On December 7, 2021, GCPS will host a virtual celebration honoring this year’s finalists and naming its top teacher.
2021-22 FINALISTS for GCPS TOTY
Jamie Garcia Caycho,
1st Grade Teacher at Arcado Elementary School
(7 years in education, all with GCPS)
Jamie Garcia Caycho believes learning is meaningful when it connects to students’ lived experiences. She adds, “My goal is to help students make those connections so that learning extends beyond the classroom walls and stays with them for future applications and learning experiences.” Mrs. Garcia Caycho is most proud of a small instructional workshop for Spanish-speaking parents she created five years ago that has made a big impact in the community. According to Caycho, “That small idea is now a thriving parent-outreach program that has led to increased student achievement and parental involvement in school. This past year I was awarded a prestigious Teach On Project grant which will allow me to add a bilingual family reading program to it.”
Mrs. Garcia Caycho began her teaching career in 2014 at Arcado Elementary School as a 1st grade teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Georgia Gwinnett College, a master’s degree in Elementary Reading and Literacy from Walden University, and a specialist’s degree in Teacher Leadership from Mercer University.
4th Grade Teacher—Math, Science, and Social Studies—at Puckett’s Mill Elementary School
(18 years in education, all with GCPS)
Kelly Powell is committed to preparing her students to become better citizens in their communities by investing in their lives. She explains, “I engage in personal, non-academic conversations with students about themselves and their cultural backgrounds.” Daily, she demonstrates to her students that they are heard and cared about in her classroom. “Standing at my doorway to greet my students every morning gives each child a sense of belonging. This greeting gives me a chance to have a brief conversation which helps start their day and be intentionally recognized by name to build a sense of community and establish relationships.”
Mrs. Powell started her career as a Gwinnett teacher in 2005 at Duncan Creek Elementary School where she taught kindergarten and 1st grade. She moved to Puckett’s Mill Elementary School in 2008 where she taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades. In 2015, she transitioned to her current position, teaching 4th grade students. In 2021, Mrs. Powell became an adjunct science teacher at Gwinnett Online Campus. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design from Baylor University, a master’s degree in Elementary Education from Phoenix University, and a specialist’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Lincoln Memorial University.
Orchestra Teacher at Berkmar Middle School
(11 years in education, 4 years with GCPS)
A middle school orchestra teacher, Taniesha Pooser uses music to help students learn the building blocks of a successful life. “My class reinforces the use of 21st-century skills such as teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and self-discipline,” Pooser said. “I challenge my students to imitate the qualities that they see to be productive citizens in our world.”
Mrs. Pooser is committed to making sure her students feel connected and valued. She explains, “I ask my students questions about their lives and point out our similarities to build their bonds. I intentionally create activities that allow students to speak about their experiences and connect with each other’s shared experiences to build community.”
Mrs. Pooser started her GCPS career at Berkmar Middle School in 2017 as an Orchestra teacher. Prior to joining the Berkmar team, she taught orchestra at Longleaf Middle School. She has a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of South Carolina, a master’s degree in Education from Columbia College, as well as a specialist’s degree in Music Education Piedmont College, and an Educational Leadership certificate from Kennesaw State University.
Media Specialist at North Gwinnett Middle School
(6 years in education all with GCPS)
Jenny Stark is dedicated to the creation of a school culture that values reading and creates opportunities for students and staff to engage with meaningful texts. She explains, “Data supports the positive impact my programming has had on student reading habits,” Stark said.” During the first two months of the 2016-2017 school year, 7,490 books were circulated for an average of 3.26 books per student. In the first two months of this school year, students checked out 10,021 books for an average of 4.75 books per student. This demonstrates growth of 33% in book circulations.” Mrs. Stark says she is most proud of her work addressing the literacy need beyond the walls of her classroom. “In 2016, I co-founded an organization called First Book Club 165. To date, the organization has gifted more than 170,000 books to children in the Lawrenceville area through partnerships with elementary schools.”
In 2016, Mrs. Stark began her GCPS career as the media specialist at North Gwinnett Middle School. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication/Media Studies from Kennesaw State University and a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Florida State University.
9th Grade Algebra Teacher at Archer High School
(8 years in education, 3 with GCPS)
Lee Allen became a teacher because he longed to make a difference in the lives of students and student athletes. He explains, “Nothing can compare to the feeling of knowing that you have directly impacted a student who will go on to be a great influence in the lives of others.”
Mr. Allen, who left the private sector to become a teacher, is passionate about math and finds creative ways to engage students and get them to enjoy math. “I do my best to make mathematics relatable to my students,” Allen said. “I do this by making math meaningful with real-world applications and incorporating social emotional learning as part of my lessons, group activities, and classroom norms. I even recorded a couple of math rap song videos starring myself which the students really enjoyed,” Allen said.
Mr. Allen began his teaching career as a math teacher at Northwest Whitfield High School in 2014. He joined GCPS in 2019, teaching Algebra I, Sheltered ESOL Algebra I, and Pre-Calculus at Archer High School. He earned bachelor’s degrees in Risk Management and Insurance and Sports Management from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Georgia College and State University. He is currently pursuing a specialist’s degree in Teacher Leadership from Valdosta State University.
Math Teacher at Brookwood High School—
AP Statistics 10th–12th Grade and Gifted Accelerated Precalculus 9th–11th Grade
(15 years in education all with GCPS)
Erin Thompson believes the relationships teachers develop with their students are just as important, if not more important, than the content that they teach. “An educator is an advocate for their students, a cheerleader to encourage them inside and outside the classroom,” Thompson said. To help students cope with the effect of the pandemic, Mrs. Thompson created “Coffee Hour with Mrs. T.” She explains, “I had students of all races and cultural backgrounds on the call and they were all experiencing the same heartbreak of being isolated. It was a safe place for students to talk, listen, and support one another. At the end of the first week, I had approximately 20 students on the call each morning. By the end of the semester, I had close to 50 students on the call.”
Mrs. Thompson joined GCPS and the staff of Brookwood High School in 2007. She earned both her bachelor’s degree in Math Education and a master’s degree in Math Education from the University of Georgia.
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 2022 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 Federal Credit Union
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
*Pictures of the six Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year finalists are available upon request.