Nov 11

Gwinnett Teacher of the Year comes from GSMST

By: Keith Farner

Published: November 8, 2013

DULUTH — Last week, Hyunjin Son admitted that she wouldn’t be “crowned anything anytime soon.”

That changed Thursday night at the Gwinnett Center at an annual Gwinnett County Public Schools Teacher of the Year banquet and celebration of education. Chosen as one of six finalists, Son, an engineering teacher at the Gwinnett School for Math, Science and Technology, was then selected High School Teacher of the Year before it was announced she is the 2014 Gwinnett County Teacher of the Year.

An engineering researcher who left the lab to enter the education field, Son’s reaction when she learned she was a finalist was “shock and disbelief.”

Those feelings continued on Thursday as Son stood and hesitated before she walked to the stage.

“I didn’t know I had to give a speech twice,” she said. “So I only prepared one speech. … To be recognized for everybody else is, is just baffling.”

The Elementary School Teacher of the Year award went to Heather Watkins, a first grade teacher at Mulberry Elementary, and the Middle School Teacher of the Year was Lissette McRea of Berkmar Middle. The other finalists were Ashley Allgood of Brookwood High, Stacey Dunlap of Simpson Elementary and Carol Williams of Summerour Middle.

As Gwinnett’s Teacher of the Year, Son now competes for the Georgia title. She will receive an annual award of $1,000 and the other 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, and each local school winner will receive a one-time award of $200.

The process began with 130 teachers selected at their local schools before a selection committee narrowed the list to 26 semifinalists and six finalists.

Son teaches Foundations of Engineering and Technology to ninth graders. Son has said she hopes to expose engineering to as many students as possible, and that her students could help change society’s views on women in engineering.

She also credited other teachers at GSMST for helping to develop a curriculum that Son said was a reason she was selected.

“I don’t think this is an award I can take on my own,” she said. “But it’s an absolute team effort.”

She came to GSMST in 2010 after she previously taught at Peachtree Ridge High. Because she’s “part of excellence,” Son said she’s grown as a teacher since she began at GSMST.

GSMST Principal Jeff Mathews said Son makes GSMST a better school, and the district is lucky to have her. Mathews said Son’s educational background helps make engineering relevant to her students.

“She is a true role model not only for our future female engineers, but also for all of our young adults,” he said. “Her attention to rigor and relationships with her students is remarkable. The innovation and expertise is evident the minute you walk into her classroom as you see students exercising critical thinking and problem-solving skills.”

In her speech, Son also thanked Mathews.

“Thank you for believing in me even, at times, when I didn’t believe in myself,” she said.

Son is in her ninth year in education, all with GCPS, and she said she found passion in her second career.

Son earned a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical and biomedical engineering from Tufts University, and a master’s degree in science education from the University of Georgia.

Son became a teacher after she worked in the male-dominated field of engineering research where she didn’t have much in common with her colleagues outside of work.

But she was also part of a bio-medical research team at the University of Chicago that developed a patent for ways to cool down the body following cardiac arrest before a person arrives at a hospital.

Son migrated to the United States as a 7-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, and experienced one of her biggest hurdles when she learned English.

“I was forced to learn to communicate my thoughts and feelings to a teacher who was not supportive of my endeavor,” she said.

Her professional engineering background helps her develop a relationship with her students, to influence them and get them excited about engineering.

“I hoped to utilize these opportunities to serve as a role model for all of my students to demonstrate that women can be intelligent, creative, scientists and even engineers,” she said. “My presence could change how male students viewed and treated women. But more importantly, I wanted my female students to understand that their capabilities and interests should not be influenced or limited by society but by their own ethics and passion.”