Heather McConnell is not the first McConnell to teach in Gainesville City Schools.
Nor is she the first to win the honor of districtwide Teacher of the Year.
But while McConnell is carrying on a family legacy, she’s doing it in her own way. The special education teacher was named Wood’s Mill Academy’s teacher of the year, and she then was selected the 2017 Gainesville City Schools Teacher of the Year.
Her mother, Denise McConnell, received the honor for 2014.
Being the child of two Gainesville educators led McConnell to her career in education.
“I think it’s something that we were so indoctrinated with growing up,” she said. “I have two younger brothers, and for us, it was just so much a part of our every day. My parents took every opportunity to teach lessons, whether they be academic or just life or social lessons.”
Her father, Dave McConnell, works at Gainesville High School as a teacher and football coach. He was in on the surprise when the district announced her as teacher of the year.
“They announced it at the football game, in the first round of playoffs, and my dad was on the field as a coach,” she said. “He tricked me. He was in on it.”
McConnell said she was particularly thankful the school system took the time to have her family there.
“Gainesville city is so much of a family affair for us,” she said. “My brothers and I all graduated from Gainesville, mom and dad have worked in Gainesville, so I really feel like I grew up here and this is where I call home.”
While she always knew she wanted to be a teacher, McConnell did not intend to go into special education.
“My original degree is in theater education, and I really thought I was going to run a theater one day,” she said. “That’s just not what the Lord had planned for me.”
McConnell said she was in between jobs a few years ago when a friend suggested she try substitute teaching in an autism classroom at Gainesville Middle School.
“He said, ‘Just give it a week, and we’ll see what happens,’” she said. “I went in, loved it, went back to him and the principal and said, ‘Please, I would like to keep this assignment as long as I can.’”
She continued as a long-term substitute paraprofessional for the remainder of the school year, and then spent the summer of 2012 getting certified for special education.
“It really was happenstance, I guess, that special education worked for me,” she said. “But so many parts of my personality or my training that didn’t seem to fit before now fit and now work best.”
McConnell worked a year at Wood’s Mill Academy, where she taught a handful of boys in fifth through ninth grades. When the sixth- through ninth-grade academy became strictly Wood’s Mill High School this year, McConnell transferred back to Gainesville Middle to teach an autism classroom of six boys.
In her classroom, she and the paraprofessionals have to be “flexible and patient.”
“A lot of that is the nature of disability,” she said. “It’s not in the best interest of my kids for me to do any differently. We deal with what we need to, try to move forward and work for progress every day, while knowing that progress is coming through lots of different avenues and in lots of different ways.”
Some days are easier than others, she said. But they are all worth it.
McConnell’s unexpected vocation sparked a passion in her for the special needs community in Gainesville.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I would love to have more for these boys to do, for their families, more opportunities for respite, for generalized skills,” she said. “That’s a lot of work that will take a lot of time, but that community support behind us is really on my heart. For my (students’) parents especially, it’s important for me to let them know there are people behind them supporting them.”