Ann and Travis Graves, pictured with their children, Jackson and Cortlyn, each won teaching honors for their work at Elizabethton City Schools and ETSU, respectively. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
Travis received the Distinguished Faculty Award in Teaching from East Tennessee State University, where he is an assistant professor in studio art and sculpture.
Ann was named teacher of the year for the Elizabethton City School System. Ann is a science teacher at Elizabethton High School, teaching biology, environmental science and physical science.
While they teach different subjects to students of different ages, Travis and Ann see a lot of similarities in their teaching philosophies and the influence of nature in their field of study.
Travis says great artists attempt to explore the deeper mysteries of life and nature with artistic methods just as a great scientist explores those mysteries with scientific methods. He said the impressionist painting of Claude Monet is a good example.
“Anyone can learn to draw,” Travis said. An artist does more than just draw a picture, an artist communicates with those who take the time to view the work.
For some of Travis’ work, a viewer can’t help but take time to observe and reflect on man’s relationship with nature. A good example is his sculpture of a human hand that gracefully extends the fingers, transforming into branches of a vine.
Ann is also concerned with the human relationship to nature in her teaching. Her environmental science classes are reinforced by recycling. Her emphasis on health and wellness in her biology courses is reinforced by the healthy lifestyle she leads, eating nutritious foods and getting exercise. Her real world emphasis includes raising chickens and not just watching a hot-air balloon, but explaining the dynamics that make it work.
“My real focus is on the students,” Ann said. She tries to get to know them by learning about an interest they may have, such as punk rock or a love of animals. She uses that to connect with them. She said it helps “that I have never really grown up.”
Ann and Travis have known each other since they were in high school in Sioux City, Iowa. Travis was a year older and, while they were not sweethearts, they were friends. Even though Ann and her family moved back to her native South Dakota, Travis and Ann stayed in touch and occasionally crossed paths. They eventually married when they both lived in Wisconsin.
The couple moved to Tennessee in 2005 when Travis became a professor at ETSU. Ann began working as a substitute teacher in Johnson City, got a job at the Quillen College of Medicine, and was hired at Elizabethton High School in 2006.
Since then, they have become the parents of Cortlyn, now a first-grader at West Side Elementary, and Jackson, who attends the Elizabethton City Schools’ Early Learning Center.
“It doesn’t seem like we have been a here a decade,” Travis said. “How is that possible?”
“We like the area,” Ann said, mentioning the Appalachian Trail in particular. She also enjoys making soap for the weekly farmers market in Elizabethton.
Because of her Midwestern background, Ann said she can sometimes connect with the students who don’t quite fit in. She conveys an open-mindedness that helps some students who need to find someone willing to listen and talk with them.
That doesn’t mean Ann is a soft touch as a teacher.
“I have high expectations in my classes,” Ann said. She challenges them to find the answer rather than just give it to them. “It frustrates them, but in experimenting and finding the answers for themselves, they are building skills they will need in life,” she said.
While her tough teaching may not be popular at the time, she said many students have told her how they appreciated her classes as they got older. She said she now runs into many of her former students around town who have started careers and professional lives. One is even a teacher Jackson has at the Early Learning Center.
Like so many aspects of their teaching styles, Travis has a very similar approach to his students.
“I like to build a relationship with my students.” Travis said. “I want to communicate with them, and I am interested in their well-being.”
While college graduates naturally disperse much further away than high school graduates, Travis maintains contact with many of them and expresses pride in their accomplishments.
Like Ann, Travis teaches his students to adapt to problems and find solutions. If a rock that is being sculptured suddenly fractures, what can be done? He suggests they experiment and find a solution.
“We both take our jobs very seriously, we are teaching life lessons,” Ann said.
While they came to Tennessee as a young couple with a lot of options for their future, these Midwesterners have put down some deep roots and have been honored by their peers and students. Their children are also flourishing. On Monday, Cortlyn brought home her own award, an “exceptional effort award for outstanding academic performance.”
“We have been embraced by the community,” Travis said.