ABOUT THE WINNER
* Julie Bowman
* Age: 50
* Education: Bachelor of science in elementary education and a master's in school administration
* Experience: 17 years at North Hamilton County Elementary, 29 years in education
* Personal: Married to Robert Bowman. They have two children, Sara Grace, 15, and Jack, 11.
QUOTES ABOUT THE FINALIST: "She always has the children at the forefront; she's just a jewel to have on your staff." - Penny Leffew, principal at North Hamilton County Elementary
"She gives 100 percent to everything she does. She's one of the strong backbones of our school." - Linda Mulkey, librarian at North Hamilton County Elementary
"The most important and character-building quality she has is she treats students as if they were her own children. She makes them feel at home." - David Hampton, parent
* She's a big Bruce Springsteen fan.
* She has taken in virtually any animal imaginable, including a rabbit, a chinchilla, two Canada geese and a squirrel brought to school by her students.
Julie Bowman was predestined to become a teacher, she says.
Her maternal grandparents were both teachers, her aunts were teachers, even her mother was a school teacher.
When Bowman was 3 or 4 years old she would put on her mother's high heels and sit Teddy - or T.B. as she called her teddy bear - Raggedy Ann, Clarence the cross-eyed lion and all the others on the couch and pretend that she was the teacher and all her stuffed animals were her attentive students.
"I was always going to be a teacher," said the now 50-year-old mother of two and one of the finalists for the Times Free Press Excellence in Education awards. She has been teaching for almost 30 years.
Her love for teaching is evident in the way she treats the kids, the way she talks about reading and the roles she plays in her school.
"She's just a very caring person," said Penny Leffew, principal at North Hamilton County Elementary School, where Bowman has taught since the school opened in 1995.
"She'll go over and above in anything and always has the children at the forefront," she added.
Bowman knows how to make the children feel comfortable, wrote David Hampton, a student's parent who nominated her.
"She has an inviting smile and a welcoming spirit every morning when the children and parents come in," he wrote.
Bowman sad she's a theme person. So when she was moved from second to fourth grade the big question was, what was going to be the theme of her classroom?
Since she likes the outdoors, she went for a woodsy atmosphere.
As soon as students walk in the classroom, located on "Self-discipline Drive," there's a green and brown floor mat that says "Welcome to the Cabin;" the door has a sign that reads, "Wilderness Welcome."
The back of the classroom is decorated with a forest-print wallpaper Bowman bought on eBay, and Timber, a big black stuffed animal, sits on a picnic table made by her dad.
Students can also read by an artificial campfire and cuddle with Timber.
"She has created a classroom atmosphere that is relaxing and inviting," Hampton wrote.
The bottom line to being a teacher, said Bowman, is that it's all about the kids.
One thing that would surprise some about teaching is that it's not a 9-to-5 sort of job, she said.
Recently she laid awake at night thinking how she could get a student interested in reading.
"It goes home with you and it follows you wherever you go," said the woman with short gray hair and soft blue eyes. But it's a kind of "hard" she loves to do.
"We need people who are willing to pretty much dedicate their lives to this job," she said.
One of her favorite things to do is to read aloud to the children.
Her goal in life, she said, is to foster the love for reading in each and every child.
"If a child is a good reader, they will be a lifetime learner," she said.
But every job comes with its challenges, and teaching is no exception.
Throughout her career she has taught children who come from all sorts of backgrounds and have all sorts of weaknesses and strengths. The key, she said, is finding ways to be able to teach each and every one of them.
"Learning how to teach all of these children and making sure I bring them to their full potential is the biggest challenge," she said.
But she must be doing something right.
"This educator understands that today's children learn much different than we learned years ago," Hampton wrote in his nomination.
"She puts the students in the driver seat and challenges them to share what they know with their fellow classmates," he added.
And most importantly, she makes each student feel like they are her only student.
Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.