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Former clothes maker relishes education role
Gainesville Middle School science teacher Hugh McKinney explains an electrical circuit during a recent class. - photo by Tom Reed

Gainesville teachers of the year

Hugh McKinney
School: Gainesville Middle School
Subject: Eighth-grade science
Years of service: five, all at Gainesville Middle
City of residence: Flowery Branch

Michele Colbert
School: Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School
Teaches: Spanish and English as a Second Language
Years of service: 13; six at Fair Street
City of residence: Gainesville

Jennifer Hicks
School: Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy
Teaches: Kindergarten
Years of service: nine, all at Enota
City of residence: Martin (Stephens County)

Tracy Markey
School: Centennial Arts Academy
Teaches: First grade
Years of service: 16; nine in Gainesville schools
City of residence: Demorest

Lynette Rivera
School: Gainesville Exploration Academy
Teaches: First grade
Years of service: 14; five at Gainesville Exploration
City of residence: Flowery Branch

Heather Scott
School: New Holland Core Knowledge Academy
Position: Media specialist
Years of service: 12; seven at New Holland
City of residence: Cumming

Lisa Sheehy
School: Gainesville High School
Teaches: Math
Years of service: 20; four at Gainesville High
City of residence: Gainesville

The pay isn’t nearly as good as in his old career, but the stress is less and the satisfaction greater.

“Sometimes at the end of the year, when the kids write in my yearbook, the ones I don’t think I reached will make some positive comment about ... an encouraging word I said,” Gainesville Middle School teacher Hugh McKinney said.

McKinney, recently announced as the Gainesville school system’s teacher of the year for 2010-11, is cultivating a career in the classroom after 30 years working key positions in the apparel industry.

He went to work for Oxford Industries in Atlanta after graduating from Georgia Tech and quickly rose in the profession. He was named plant manager after three years and became a director of manufacturing at another company 13 years later.

“There’s a lot (of) stress in top management ... so many things beating you up all the time,” said McKinney, who lives in Flowery Branch with his wife, Catherine.

Adding to the stress was the industry’s decline.

“As plants started shutting down and (with) competition off shore, I had to look around and get something else,” said the East Point native.

One thing he was certain of was that he didn’t want to move out of the area.

“We have moved all over the Southeast,” McKinney said. “We liked our church and the house we were in, and we are close to our parents.”

Then, one day, he heard a news report about the state’s need for math and science teachers — two subjects close to his heart.

Considering that as a new career, he decided first to talk to his best friend, a chemistry teacher for 30 years in Fulton County, and observe his class for a couple of days.

“I asked him to tell me the good, bad and ugly about teaching, which he did,” McKinney said.

He wanted to test the waters a little further, so he worked as a substitute teacher in Gainesville and Hall and Gwinnett counties. He came away from that experience especially interested in middle school science.

McKinney went to North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, where he got both his education certification and master’s degree.

He later went on to earn a specialist degree in education at Piedmont College in Demorest and his gifted-education endorsement through the University of Georgia.

McKinney, now in his fifth year of teaching, said he has used his industrial engineering background to make the switch to classroom teaching.

“I try to relate, as much as possible, things that come up in physical sciences to the real world, because that really helps them understand why it’s important and helps them like science more,” he said.

McKinney said he has found “a lot of kids liked science when they were real little, when they were in elementary (school), but as they get older, for some reason, they kind of drift away from that.”

So he tries to make class more engaging, through labs and other hands-on activities.

“It’s hard for an eighth-grader to sit still and not talk. I give them the chance to get up and move around by doing the labs, and they can talk and discuss stuff,” he said.

Also, McKinney gives students some choices in how they want to complete an assignment. Students can write a report, present it orally or choose some other way to show “they have mastered a standard.”

“If they have more of an interest in a topic and how to present it, they’re going to research it more — they’re going to do a better job on it,” he said.

McKinney’s work hasn’t escaped the attention of colleagues. After chosen school teacher of the year, he was selected by a central office committee as the systemwide teacher of the year.

“It’s a big honor because you’re voted on by your peers ... to recognize all the work you’ve done, all the hours, all the schooling and the (preparation), lesson plans you do at night and on weekends,” McKinney said.

He and other district winners now go on to compete for Georgia Teacher of the Year. The state will announce the winner at the annual teachers of the year banquet in May.

Gainesville Middle School principal Ken Martin said he is honored that the district’s teacher of the year hails from his school.

“Hugh is an outstanding educator and person who cares about the students,” he said. “He makes the class enjoyable and related to their lives. Not many teachers are able to capture a student’s interest in science the way he does.”

Martin added that McKinney, who has one grown son, three grandchildren and a fourth grandchild on the way, also supports students by attending sporting events and concerts.

“Mr. McKinney is a consummate professional by offering to assist his peers, as well as the students,” he said.

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