ABOUT THE FINALIST
Name: Ruth Maxwell
Education: Bachelor of science in special education, early childhood and elementary education from East Tennessee State University; master of science in elementary education from Cumberland University.
Experience: Thirteen years at Nolan Elementary; 29 years as an educator
Personal: Widowed; two grown children.
PULL QUOTE: "This award is more than deserved, but she readily gives credit elsewhere - to her students, to her colleagues, to parents who support her. She's in it for the right reasons, which is seeing her students make academic successes."
FUN FACT: Maxwell is afraid of heights, but she enjoys skiing. She took a class devoted to it during her college days at ETSU, and recently she coasted down the snowy hills of Crested Butte, Colo.
When Ruth Maxwell walks her class down the hall to the Nolan Elementary School cafeteria, she holds up a bathroom plunger for all to see.
A teacher hoisting a plumber's best friend before lunch may not immediately make sense, but as Maxwell might say, neither do first- graders.
One thing she knows: "BE QUIET!!" doesn't really work with Signal Mountain 6-year-olds. "You've got to pull tricks out of your hat all the time," she said.
Those tricks helped her become a finalist in the elementary school division of the inaugural Times Free Press Excellence in Education awards.
One day during her 29-year tenure in education, Maxwell decided the plunger did the job when silence was needed. Now when it goes skyward, pre-lunch-chatter dies down and learning goes undisturbed.
She uses other tricks inside her classroom. Almost every day, she wears a special hat or a decorative apron that's aligned with something the students are learning about, be it outer space, basic arithmetic or Tennessee history.
In a light-hearted way, Maxwell describes such attention-getters as "gimmicks." But Nolan Elementary Principal Shane Harwood views them in another light.
"That sort of thing - what she calls gimmicks - that engages students," Harwood said. "They become interested in not only what she's wearing or what she's doing; they eventually get into what she's saying and they learn from it."
Kelley Calhoun, a kindergarten teacher at Nolan, said Maxwell's trademark projects - photojournalism books, "Christmas for the Birds" and create-your-own fiction among them - make her feel comfortable when her class advances to the next level.
"I always think my creative kids will do great in her class," Calhoun said.
Several parents concurred, and some cited extracurricular outreach as a big reason why.
"Ms. Maxwell makes sure she attends at least one game, performance or recital for every student in her class during the year," said Scottie Goodman Summerlin, a parent at Nolan. "When she shows up at a baseball game, for example, you would think she is a celebrity."
Like anything else, teaching is "not always rosy," Maxwell said. From 5 a.m. alarm clocks to weekend prep sessions to parent conferences way after sundown, she said, people outside education don't always grasp the hours involved.
"You either choose to come in early in the morning or stay late," she said. "Some do both."
Teachers also face political and image problems, Maxwell said. "More teacher input" at the state government level and "more stories on good teachers and what's happening in the schools" would convince more parents of a public education's virtues, she said.
But the hours, the frantic emails from parents, the mandates passed down from boardrooms in Nashville - all the hassle floats away when she visits with former students.
"When I hear one of them say something like, 'I want to study the pyramids in Egypt because you introduced that to me in first grade,'" she said, "you're automatically thinking, 'Wow. I've done something. I've motivated.'"
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6610.