ABOUT THE FINALIST
Education: Bachelor of science from Baylor University
Years at East Hamilton: 3
Years in education: 24
Family: Husband Greg Dennis coaches baseball at Chattanooga State. They have three sons: Zach, 20; Fielder, 17; and Mitch, 10.
QUOTES ABOUT THE FINALIST
"She greets every kid at the door and makes them feel like they're a part of something. That's so crucial in middle school, especially in such a big school." - East Hamilton Assistant Principal Chrissy Easterly
Every day when the kids leave, Dennis says, "Have a good day and make good choices."
For Mary Dennis' 7th graders at East Hamilton Middle High School, geography is much more than maps.
Geography is about tastes and languages, holidays and health issues, and governments and global struggles.
Dennis knows the world is a big, complicated place - for 7th graders and adults alike - so she tries to build connections. She finds videos of current events and snips stories out of newspapers. She plays the music of one culture and celebrates the holidays of another. Her class may spend one day hearing about the Indian heritage of one student and eating spicy curry and the next learning about health problems in Syria.
"This world is so different from the world I grew up in," Dennis said. "Other cultures aren't in another country, they're right here in front of us. If my kids could walk in someone else's shoes to have a better understanding of those cultures, I think the world would be a lot better place."
That means that, as her class covers Australia, Dennis will teach about the kangaroos, deserts and the Great Barrier Reef; but she'll also bring in two Australian students her husband coaches at Chattanooga State to talk about their home.
"She's always trying to move away from textbook testing to a more hands-on assessment," said East Hamilton middle school assistant principal Chrissy Easterly.
And Dennis always tries to make sure global issues hit home. She'll ask students to talk with their neighbors about something they're learning, or ask them to apply a concept to the Chattanooga area.
"When we're talking about something like population, I try to ask, 'How does this affect you?' We talk about East Hamilton, and how lots of people are moving to this side of town and how that affects the school and neighborhoods. And we apply that to other parts of the world."
Overpopulation is one concern Dennis has for her own classes - which usually top out at around 30 students per period. Smaller class size is one change Dennis believes immediately would improve public education. At a school where she had only 15 kids per class, test scores skyrocketed, she said.
Dennis has her hands full at East Hamilton. Two hours before school starts, Dennis is already in full gear calling parents, answering emails, scheduling meetings and placing substitutes. She takes it all in stride.
"When I think of Mary, I think of constant motion," Easterly said.
Besides teaching, Dennis is one of the school's team leaders - overseeing half of the seventh grade and their teachers. She coaches tennis and she is one of the sponsors of the school's growing Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.
"She greets every kid at the door and makes them feel like they're a part of something," said Easterly. "That's so crucial in middle school, especially in such a big school."
In spite of the large number of students Dennis has, she said one of the most surprising aspects of her job is how she is able to bond with the 150 who pass through her classroom each year.
"The range of emotional issues that I'm dealing with on a day-to-day basis is pretty incredible. People assume that our kids at East Hamilton are all in those white little houses with picket fences and perfect lives. They're just not."
Dennis helps guide her students through divorces, death, and the full gamut of puberty struggles and self-esteem issues.
"Kids have so much going on in their lives at this age," she said. "I try to make this a place where they feel comfortable."
One of the hardest parts of the job is dealing with all the adults who can make education more complicated, she said. The conflicting expectations among administrators, fellow teachers and parents often can lead to disagreements and stymie learning, she said.
"Sometimes the adults and all their issues get in the way of really being able to learn," she said.
Her favorite part of teaching is just being with kids, she said. She laughed as she talked about how much fun she had on a recent trip to Lake Winnepesaukah with the kids, and happily chatted about how well the students performed at their recent 7th grade talent show.
"Mary just really enjoys the students. That's a skill that cannot be taught," Easterly said.
Early one recent Friday morning, a pair of boys sheepishly walked in with cards they made for Teacher Appreciation Day. They handed the notes to her, then ducked out the door as she smiled and told them, "You're good guys, you know that?"
Like every card she gets from a student, Dennis will tuck these into a special drawer and hang onto them for years.
Tears filled her eyes as she opened a note from one of the boys, who thanked her for being there for him after his best friend died.
Exploring the world with her students is her job - but Dennis knows that sometimes the most important part of that job is helping her 7th graders navigate the complexities of their own worlds.
"It's crazy for these kids. They're just a kid one second, and they think they're all grown up another second - and that whole transition is just so hard. I like to try to help them through that process."
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.