OAKWOOD -- Joel Aquino spent years traveling the world with companies mining in exotic places, including a $13 billion gold and copper find in Laos.
But ask Aquino where he is most content these days and he'll tell you Room 222, Yellow Hall, at West Hall High School.
"I always go to a classroom full of life," said the science teacher. "There are more gold deposits to be found in their minds. ... I need to discover more minds ... not mines."
There are still rewards; not the financial reaping, but satisfaction that comes from student learning.
Recognition from peers doesn't hurt either, as he received lately when he was named the Hall County school system's teacher of the year for 2008-09.
He first was named West Hall's top teacher, then won the honor from among top teachers in the system's 33 schools. He now goes on to compete for statewide honors, which will be announced in May.
"I am very honored and am humbled to be selected by my fellow educators," said Aquino, who is in his second year teaching at West Hall.
"Normally, this honor is given to people ... who have been teaching for at least three years, so when my fellow educators here at West Hall voted me teacher of the year, I was really, really surprised."
A longtime geologist, Aquino never set out to become a classroom teacher. But he believes the work experiences has helped prepare him better for his new career.
"It took me 20 years to finally decide that I really want to be a teacher in my heart," said Aquino, 46. " I believe that in order to become a good teacher, you should have real-world application."
Aquino, a native of Manila, Philippines, earned his doctorate in geology from James Cook University in Australia. He moved to the United States five years ago.
"I was in Bangkok reading in a newspaper that there was a big demand for math and science teachers in the U.S.," he said in an interview last year. "There's a lot more opportunity here. If you have the drive and motivation, it's still the American dream."
He ended up in the United States on a work visa and spent some time in Texas and then at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While at UT, he applied for classroom positions and received offers from 12 schools.
"I chose Hall County because ... (West Hall High principal Jackie) Adams accepted me with a strong faith," Aquino said.
She agreed to support Aquino's application for permanent residency upon his hiring. "Most employers -- and this is normal -- will only support a permanent residency application after six months or a year to see how you performed (on the job)," Aquino said.
He found success his first year at West Hall. The Center for Educational Policy Research, on behalf of the College Board, identified a course he had developed, "The Dynamic Earth," as an example of best practices in a national study of environmental science courses.
Adams said of Aquino at the time, "In just a very brief time, (he) has earned the respect and admiration of the faculty. His students praise his hands-on teaching style. He is truly a great addition to our faculty."
Aquino and his wife have three children: 18-year-old Carlin Abigail, 16-year-old Carl Jerritt and 14-year-old Anthony Carson. Carlin, Jerritt and Carson are all names based on gold deposits in Nevada, Aquino said with a smile. The second of each child's name was picked by his wife as a "compromise," he said.
His family still lives in Tennessee and Aquino goes home frequently for visits. But he is working to bring his family to live in Hall County, where he has settled comfortably.
"Everyone is like one big family here - nice people, nice county, nice families ... and a group of really good kids," he said.