'I spark their creativity': Approach nets North Murray High instructor Teacher of the Year award

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

"I get (my students) excited, point them in the right direction, and then let them make the decisions," said Kevin Henry, Murray County Schools' Teacher of the Year. "I spark their creativity, and they run with it." 

CHATSWORTH — Kevin Henry was "very humbled" to be named Murray County Schools' Teacher of the Year, because he insists the credit for that accomplishment belongs to his students, fellow teachers and the dozens of adult professionals who volunteer their time to mentor his students.

"We get so much done because it's not just me," said Henry, an engineering and electronics instructor in the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) department at North Murray High School. "The interaction I have with other teachers has made this program successful, because I don't have all the answers, and using other departments has made us stronger."

For example, when Henry and his students needed help with buoyancy calculations for a submersible, they tabbed the math department, and when they required calculations for a replica nuclear reactor, they reached out to the science department. Henry also employs his vast array of contacts outside the school to aid various student projects.

"He has a ton of experience in a lot of different (areas), but he's also very well connected," said John Grant Campbell, who has had Henry as a teacher and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team adviser all three years of his time in high school. "He's always there for guidance and support, and if he doesn't know something, he knows somebody who does know it, and they are usually there in 30 minutes to help."

As for Henry's students, "I have some of the most talented, dedicated students you'll find anywhere, and they have no problem setting the right priorities," he said. "It's their accomplishments that did this, not mine."

Chatsworth Heavy Trucking Repair Facility once brought an 18-wheeler to the high school with an electronic issue, and "they couldn't figure out what's wrong with it," he said. "My kids were able to correct the problem in that truck, and then eight more trucks."

The company sent tools worth thousands of dollars as gratitude, and they've since hired some of Henry's students, he said. That's not unusual, as students will often call Henry after job interviews with local companies to exclaim excitedly their interviewer was one of the adult mentors from Henry's classes.

"I have more volunteer hours here than the football team and band combined," he said. "We have so much support from the business community."

'An exceptional educator'

Through Henry's teaching and leadership, the high school's electronics program became industry certified in 2019, according to Murray County Schools. He was selected as the 2018 Ambassador for the Georgia Teacher Academy for Preparation and Pedagogy.

Henry, who was honored as Teacher of the Year at a ceremony late last year, "is an exceptional educator, a team player, (and) will do anything you need him to do," said Maria Bradley, North Murray High's principal. "Students are fortunate to have (him) as a teacher."

He's "really dedicated to his students, and he always wants us to be successful," said Zoe Smith, a senior at North Murray High School, president of the robotics team and vice president of the Technology Student Association (TSA) squad. "Through robotics, TSA and his classes, he's always trying to teach us different things."

Campbell has enjoyed the support of many teachers, but that's usually confined to the classroom, he said. That's not the case with Henry, however.

For example, Henry took time to meet with Campbell over the holiday break to discuss how the latter could strengthen his case for the Governor's Honors Program, Campbell said. "He's supportive in the classroom and in school, but he really goes above and beyond, too."

Ashley Davidson, who has known Henry for six years, first through robotics and TSA, and, most recently, as his student teacher, said "he has helped me grow and succeed immensely."

"While in robotics and TSA, I was the president of the teams, (and) he would always help me and encourage me to be the best I could be," said Davidson, currently a history education major at Dalton State College. "He allowed me to come back (to) be his student teacher, (which has) helped me learn more about the teaching profession, (and) I appreciate everything he has done, (so I'm) happy to hear that he is the Teacher of the Year."

'So much fun, they don't realize they're learning'

With Henry, students "are having so much fun, they don't realize they're learning," and he exposes students to a wide range of duties, because "I don't know what they'll do after they graduate, but if I show them all these concepts now, they'll be able to do anything," he said. "Over the last four years, 100% of my students got into college or into a credible job," and if an admissions officer or employer ever needs more convincing, Henry is quick to write recommendations and "tell them about everything we do here."

"I get (my students) excited, point them in the right direction, and then let them make the decisions," he said. "I spark their creativity, and they run with it."

Students of his have crafted many original inventions, from a coded twist on the classic 'magic 8 ball' that utilizes biosensors to "read our energy and give you more precise and detailed answers to questions" to a "babysitter" toy that uses sensors to "hunt" and "chase" children like a T-Rex from the movie "Jurassic Park," he said. Henry's students engage in college-level curricula, including high-level math, by necessity, because that's required to complete such ambitious projects, but they also benefit from tremendous school and system-level support, as well as the generosity of corporate partners.

"We travel more than anyone else in the school system, but it's all competition-related, and we fund-raise like crazy every year with presentations to boards, etc.," he said. "I'd say 90% of what we have here has been donated to us from the corporate world or is on loan to us, but you have to go after it, because you don't get if you don't ask."

Based on success in a Chattanooga competition, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) "gave us an underwater drone," he said. "We even have a coding computer that had been on the International Space Station."

Military background

After graduating from Murray County High School, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Navy to expand his life's opportunities, and "advanced quickly in rank," he said. "I'm like the poster child for what the military can do for you, because the Navy paid 90% of my tuition at (California's) Chapman University, and I graduated magna cum laude."

He continued to pile up additional aeronautical qualifications, and "I was in Iraq from the first Gulf War to the second one," he said. He eventually retired as an officer in charge at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina before starting to pitch in at Murray County Schools' alternative high school, Pleasant Valley Innovative School, where he relished sharing his knowledge with youth.

Quickly, word spread, and the school system asked him to bring that expertise to North Murray High School, but he actually turned down the job, because "I thought I was doing more good at the alternative school," he said. A few days later, system administrators called to ask him to reconsider, and "after that, it's been all good things."

Amy Garcia believes Henry is "such a good teacher and instructor because of how dedicated he is to everything, even if it’s something really small," said the senior. "He’s also capable of easily bringing out each of his student’s greatest potential."

"I definitely appreciate that he was able to help me bring out the best in myself as well as how he’s taught me to be a lot more confident in my abilities," added Garcia, who has been a member of both the TSA and the robotics team — this year as safety captain — all four years of high school. If not for Henry's lessons and encouragement, Garcia would not be "the student I am today."

Because his background and training isn't in education, "I think differently than all the other teachers here, but what we do in this room is different, so I have to think differently," Henry said. "I don't treat my students as students, (but as) technicians, and I (organize) it more like a company."

There's competition for roles, and "you would not believe how vocal some of the quietest students are when they want to do something," he said. Students also become comfortable presenting, because he requires regular verbal status briefings from them.

Henry runs his program unlike most others, but that's by design, and "I never wait to see what other schools do," he said. "I'm going to make this program the best it can possibly be, and they can follow us."

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