Carol Sullivan is reluctant to accept praise.
"I couldn't be here without all the wonderful people that helped me," she said. "The teachers in my grade group, my principals, the other teachers in this school, they're wonderful."
Sullivan, a second-grade teacher at Waterville Community Elementary School in Cleveland, Tenn., was recently awarded the Southeast Tennessee Regional Teacher of the Year award for kindergarten through fourth grade.
"I work with a great group," she said, adding that she's grateful to her colleagues for "choosing me to represent them this year."
Raised as a pastor's daughter, Sullivan moved around a good deal as a child. She attended Chattanooga High School for two years, then moved to Cleveland. Her father was relocated to Washington, D.C., soon after, and she met her husband, Craig, in Virginia.
A favorite memory
Taking a trip through New England, Canada and New York with her parents and sister.
Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
When an opportunity arose in 1989 to return to the Cleveland area, Sullivan was thrilled.
"We didn't have to think twice about it," she said.
The Sullivans have two children: Stephen, who is studying to be a certified public accountant, and Kristin, who is a teacher.
Q: How did you get into teaching?
A: I've always wanted to teach. I was in college when I met my husband in Alexandria, Va. I ended up going to work for the government, marrying him, and then I put him through school. Once he started working and we had our daughter, we made the decision that I would stay home with the children. After they were both in elementary school, I decided to go back and finish my degree. I started off taking two classes at a time and I finally graduated the same year as my daughter graduated from high school. Then, the year she graduated college and my son graduated high school was the year I received my master's degree. It was a dream I always had. My husband was very supportive. My family was very encouraging. My family made sacrifices so I could go back. I was 43 when I graduated [college].
Q: Why did you choose to teach?
A: I always wanted to work with children. I wanted to be a good influence for them. I wanted to teach them that they could achieve their dreams, they could be anything they wanted to be. It didn't matter their background. If they could work hard at school, they could go on and achieve. ... A lot of these children [at Waterville Community Elementary] come from unfortunate circumstances, so I hope I can put that desire in them to get an education because that's how you can do anything you want to do. The sky is the limit for them. It doesn't matter if you're poor, or if you just live with a single mom or a single dad, you can do this.
Q: What about teaching young children in particular do you like?
A: They are so excited about learning. Everything is amazing to them; they're not jaded like we get sometimes. Everything is an adventure for them. Just seeing them be successful and learning all these new things about the world inspires me to keep on doing what I do. They're so loving and open. It doesn't matter to them what you look like or what you sound like, they're accepting. We laugh, we work hard, and I look forward to every day with them.
Q: What did you think when you learned your daughter planned to follow in your footsteps?
A: I was surprised, because her undergraduate degree was in business. When she said she wanted to go into teaching, I thought she was going to be a wonderful teacher. Kristin is a very gentle person, and she has an amazing rapport with children. She is so compassionate. Every year she has her Sunday school class adopt a deserving family from her class, and they make Christmas for that family. She'll buy five or six coats for children in her classroom. My mother has always been a person who has great compassion for others, and so she and my father have always put that in us, and I suppose I passed that on to my children.
Q: Any plans to retire?
A: No, I plan to work for as long as I can. These children keep me young. I'm 56 years old. People see me and they think - I don't want to sound conceited or anything, but people are amazed that I'm that old. It's the children. It's the fountain of youth here. They keep me young because they're such joys. I'm happy to be a teacher, and I'm happy to be here.
Contact Holly Leber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Fan her on Facebook at facebook.com/leber.holly.