- Gwinnett County School District
- GCPS News
2025 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year: Gwinnett search committee narrows field to six finalists
October 24, 2023
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 2025 honor are Jenna Cloninger of Central Gwinnett High School, Michelle Ruhl of Sugar Hill Elementary School, Treva Coates of Osborne Middle School, Halie Rios of Paul Duke STEM High School, Heather Kane of Lovin Elementary School, and Michael J. Payen of Five Forks Middle School.
A selection committee of GCPS educators narrowed the field to 25 semifinalists selected from an impressive list of 141 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 2025 Teacher of the Year. On December 7, at 6:30 p.m., GCPS will host a celebration honoring this year's finalists and naming the top teacher in Gwinnett County.
2025 Finalists for GCPS TOTY
Computer Science, Pre-K - 5th Grade Teacher
Lovin Elementary School
(7 years in education, all with GCPS)
Heather Kane has a passion for STEM and Robotics. “The first thought that raced through my mind when my principal offered me the opportunity to start the computer science program at my school was, ‘I am going to use this position to bring robotics to all students,’ ” she says. Upon entering her classroom, a sign on the door reads, In this classroom, we are programmers. We are data scientists. We use mathematical reasoning. We use applied experiences. We are creative problem-solvers. We are ethical. We are future-ready. “My students are greeted with this message every day. I am deeply committed to the district’s goal of empowering students to be future-ready. One example of how I have accomplished this is by having the students participate in the Amazon Cyber Robotics Challenge learning experience,” she shares. Ms. Kane is always looking to grow, learn, and meet the needs of her students. “Personal growth is an important and multifaceted part of my journey as a computer science educator. One of the main ways I ensure growth is through continued education. My philosophy is that if I am going to effectively deliver instruction to different types of learners in my room, I should earn the certifications that will empower me to do so. It is my responsibility as an educator to learn how to best serve students in my classroom, and I am committed to achieving it,” she says. She implemented popular games like Minecraft into her instruction to help her students connect with the material. “I am a connector, passionate about forging meaningful relationships, fostering a sense of wonder, and empowering each and every student,” she explains. Ms. Kane also led the first cluster-wide Mock FIRST LEGO® League competition for elementary, middle, and high school teams.
Ms. Kane began her teaching career in 2016 as a 1st grade teacher at Peachtree Elementary School. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in STEM Education from Walden University.
Computer Science, K - 5th Grade Teacher
Sugar Hill Elementary School
(23 years in education, 22 with GCPS)
Michelle Ruhl creates an inclusive classroom by inspiring students to think creatively and solve real-world problems. Her passion is educating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), and Computer Science with the school and local community. “I want my students to see themselves as part of future innovation,” she shares. “As the first Computer Science teacher at my school, I built a framework aligned with the GCPS CS4ALL initiative. I incorporate the pillars of Computer Science instruction into my daily lessons.” Mrs. Ruhl is most proud of her role in creating and launching a FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) at her school, which led to her school being the first GCPS K-5 school involved in the FLL. “This pilot allowed GCPS to grow its K-3 robotics program from 100 to 500+ students in one year.” In her classroom, students discuss and reflect on how computer scientists connect, communicate, collaborate, create, problem-solve, and persevere. Mrs. Ruhl says. “Students’ perception of computer science has changed from this is hard to look what I can do.”
Mrs. Ruhl began her teaching career in 2000 in Walton County, then joined GCPS in 2001 as a 3rd grade teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Early Education from Georgia Southern University and a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Scranton.
6th – 8th Grade STEM Connections Teacher
Osborne Middle School
(26 years in education, 6 with GCPS)
Treva Coates recognizes the value of continuous growth and learning. “My professional growth is a benefit for each and every student in my class, regardless of background and experience, as I am able to embed translation tools, assistive technology, and virtual simulation activities to engage, support, and increase access to instructional content for all learners.” Mrs. Coates is most proud of her role as a department chair and teacher leader. “It affords me the opportunity to positively impact many teachers, students, and parents at my school,” she shares. Her role as a teacher leader allows Mrs. Coates to connect more deeply as a robotics sponsor with her students. “It is through sponsoring robotics that I help students build confidence, establish connections with like-minded students, and support the school’s STEM focus.” Mrs. Coates has a vision to extend her communication pipeline to feeder elementary and high schools, hoping to broaden diversity and inclusion in robotics for all. “Building a strong relationship in my school cluster will ensure that all students in the local community have access to higher-level learning opportunities,” she says.
Mrs. Coates began her teaching career in 1997 in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), then joined GCPS in 2017. She has a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Howard University, a master’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Maryland, a Certification in Educational Leadership from Hood College, and an Education Specialist in Instructional Technology degree from Kennesaw State University.
Michael J. Payen,
6th - 8th Grade Music Technology Teacher
Five Forks Middle School
(7 years in education, all with GCPS)
Michael J. Payen believes all students have the potential for greatness. “I help them achieve it by teaching positive social interactions, making meaningful connections, never giving up on students, and constantly striving to be better than the day before.” He started the Music Technology program at Five Forks Middle School in his second year of teaching, aiming to develop the student's skills from beginner to advanced over three semesters. He also created a Choral Composition Program during the pandemic that he hopes to introduce to high school students to reteach healthy communicative practices. “Since returning ‘back to normal,’ I have witnessed the damage that being away from other children had on our students,” he says. “As such, my philosophy has adapted to include modeling and fostering a positive learning environment that will help encourage learning for all students at the highest level.” Mr. Payen also ensures that all students have the same opportunities by applying for and obtaining grants. He has used the funding to purchase a sound booth for recording, audio/visual equipment for multimedia learning, and microphones. Mr. Payen's passion goes beyond music. In 2017, he helped students start a free Soccer Club. Through fundraising and community awareness, they were able to help 100 students of all abilities play soccer each week from September to May. “I passionately believe that soccer can be utilized to impact the lives of many more students in the county, and I am deeply committed to making it a reality,” he says. “Music is one of the only things on earth that the entire planet shares with one another. As a result, I constantly remind students that music from other cultures should be explored and not avoided.”
Mr. Payen began his career with GCPS in 2016 as a Music Technology teacher at Five Forks Middle School. He has a bachelor’s degree in Music from Keele University and a master’s degree in Music Technology from Georgia Southern University.
10th – 12th Grade Oceanography
Central Gwinnett High School
(5 years in education, all with GCPS)
Jenna Cloninger believes that Science is for everyone. “I create an inclusive environment in my classroom by honoring student voice and choice. As developing adults, I recognize that my high school students are eager to speak their minds,” she explains. “When students feel safe and supported, rather than frustrated and embarrassed, they are more likely to consistently attend their classes and do their best work.” Ms. Cloninger strives to support district goals by providing a “culturally relevant curriculum to my students in engaging ways. By the end of the school year, students have a rich understanding of how the ocean impacts each and every person on the planet, regardless of background or status.” Ms. Cloninger is also proud of her positive impact on the school community through ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ an initiative she supported that offers tutoring services through a collaborative approach. “[S.H.I.E.L.D.] has improved our school’s culture by providing a positive learning environment in which students do not feel that tutoring is a punishment or a chore,” she says.
Ms. Cloninger began her teaching career in 2018 at Central Gwinnett High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of North Georgia and a master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Kennesaw State University.
9th - 12th Grade English to Speakers of Other Languages / Language Arts Teacher
Paul Duke STEM High School
(6 years in education, 5 with GCPS)
Halie Rios says that because of her personal experience, she has made it her responsibility to empathize with students who struggle to engage and see themselves for their full potential, as she did as a student. “My philosophy is to work with kids ‘like me’ and tell them that there is no challenge too great for them to conquer.” When Paul Duke STEM first opened, Mrs. Rios had the unique opportunity to develop the Multilingual Learner (ML) Program at the school. “Equity and access were the most important considerations for me as we built our program,” she says. Mrs. Rios considers her work as a Teaching Academic Language and Content (TALC) to ML facilitator critical in equipping teachers with the necessary pedagogy to work effectively and equitably with students. “I rejoice to see students beating the odds, fighting for successful futures, and making moves that will impact their adult lives through college, career, and beyond,” she explains. She became her school’s SST Coordinator and joined the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Leadership team to create a fluid process for supporting all students through MTSS. She coordinates Kid Talks to identify areas of need, create goals and support deficits, develop MTSS plans, connect students with appropriate interventionists, and review data to determine the effectiveness of the supports provided. “Overall, my goal has been to create a school culture that embraces diverse learner needs through MTSS.”
Mrs. Rios started her education career in Adult Education in 2017 and joined GCPS in 2018. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of West Georgia and a master’s degree in TESOL 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 teacher's influence on the teaching practices of their 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 and a runner-up. One of the three-level winners will be named Gwinnett's 2025 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
Coca-Cola Bottling Company United
Arey Jones Educational Solutions
Junior Achievement of Georgia