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Meet Hall County’s Teacher of the Year who helps students tap into their creativity
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Heather Riley of Mount Vernon Exploratory School, Hall County's Teacher of the Year, interacts with students during an outdoor lesson on May 20, 2021. Photo courtesy Monya Lathem

Heather Riley said she ran from teaching for as long as she could. 

Growing up, she remembers seeing her mother, who was a teacher, working late into most afternoons. Viewing only this side of the job, Riley said she didn’t want to pursue the same route as her mom. But, destiny had other plans. 

“I was at UGA (University of Georgia), and I was going to be an accountant,” she said. “My roommate was in the education department, and I found myself spending more time with her, working on her projects and her homework. I just knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Riley, who lives in the Lula area, has now been teaching for 19 years, 18 of which were spent in Hall County Schools. On April 16, she was officially named the district’s Teacher of the Year. 

Superintendent Will Schofield and Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, recently visited Mount Vernon Exploratory School to share the news with her. 

“I was in shock,” Riley said. “It was the first time I was glad I had my mask on.”

Riley served as a teacher at Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science for 14 years before joining Mount Vernon’s team. For the first two years at the North Hall school, she led STEM labs in the learning commons, introducing kids to robotics, building butterfly habitats and other forms of enrichment. She now teaches SEARCH classes for mostly first through fifth grade, which entails creativity development, problem solving, conducting research and project-based learning. 

Riley explained that this program — which stands for Seeking Excellence And Reaching Challenging Heights — gives kids the opportunity to develop their gifts and explore topics they’re interested in. She said one of her favorite lesson plans involves “Pastabilities,” where students dive into the history of pasta and even learn how to make their own. 

If someone were to peer inside Riley’s classroom, they’d see an environment where hands-on activities and independence are embraced. When possible, she makes a point to teach portions of her lessons outside.

“They’re little people, and their bodies need to move all the time,” she said. “That’s what they’re made for, that curiosity, that movement and that discovery. I try to tap into that as much as possible.”

Although this past school year has proved challenging with the pandemic, Riley said she has stayed positive and persevered with her students.

“This year was not as much hands-on and a whole lot of cleaning in-between,” she said. “But, the kids are so resilient, and they’ve worked through it.”

Throughout her nearly two decades teaching, Riley said those “Aha!” moments from her students and “thank yous” make all her efforts worthwhile.

“This whole experience has been amazing,” she said. “Kids that I taught 15 years ago will email me. They don’t remember what I taught them, but they remember what we did and how exciting it was. And, how much I believed in them.”

Riley said she cherishes the time spent at both Martin and Mount Vernon, as well as the “amazing educators” she’s worked with from one end of the county to the other. 

“You hear that Hall County is wonderful, the most caring place on Earth,” she said. “When you’ve been to a few different places, and you’ve seen and worked with different people, you can really see that.”

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Heather Riley of Mount Vernon Exploratory School was recently named Hall County's Teacher of the Year. - photo by Kelsey Podo
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