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Star Treatment for 1995 American Teacher Award Winners

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Washington

Some came in sequins, others showed up in tuxedos. Some preened for the paparazzi, others chatted with celebrities. And at least one arranged to have a student's test mailed to her hotel.

At Washington's Warner Theater, from which the Disney Channel televised the American Teacher Awards ceremony, 36 honorees savored first-class treatment as they basked in the national spotlight. But even all of the glitter, glamour, and Hollywood-style hoopla couldn't disguise the fact that--even tonight--the award-winners were still teachers at heart.

"This is a Cinderella week for all of us," said Gwynn Taft Pearman, of West Hills Elementary in Knoxville, Tenn., who won the general elementary teacher's award. With her rhinestone-studded dress and megawatt smile, Pearman may have even passed for a movie star--until she stunned reporters by bursting into a favorite classroom song about the use of interjections.

"It is beyond my wildest dreams," added an equally excited Cindy J. Boyd of Abilene High School in Texas, the prize-winner for mathematics. "I had watched it every year, and tears always came into my eyes. I never imagined I'd be on it."

But even though she had been thrilled by the week's events, which included a trip to Disney World, Boyd confessed that she was still thinking about her classes. She had called her students twice over the course of the week and even had one struggling student's test sent to her via Federal Express.

In the Spotlight

After the teachers had accepted their awards onstage, stagehands quickly shepherded them behind the curtains with their celebrity escorts. There, the teachers faced a crush of photographers, television cameras, reporters, and assorted gawkers--all in a day's work for a celebrity, but a novelty for most of the award-winners.

"I'm speechless," said Jill Anderson, the physical education and health honoree from Iowa's Norwalk Middle School, who appeared momentarily stunned before the bright lights of a sea of TV cameras. "I'm from Iowa, and I'm not trying to knock Iowa, but this is absolutely unreal."

"We teachers are not used to having cameras in our face," agreed Stephen B. Rodecker of California's Chula Vista High School, the science teachers' winner. The attention had been so great, Rodecker said, that several onlookers had even assumed he was some sort of luminary during the winners' trip to Disney World.

The real-life celebrities, on the other hand, glided from cameras to interviews, openly enthusiastic about the importance of education.

Statuesque model Kathy Ireland received an on-stage surprise when a former teacher came out to greet her as she presented the athletic coach award. Backstage, Ireland admitted that one of her earliest dreams was to become a teacher and said she now fulfills that goal by teaching Sunday school.

Richard Karn from the "Home Improvement" TV show slipped into the role of his on-screen wisecracking character after presenting the teacher award for vocational/technical education. "Shop was quite an eye-opener for me," he said, explaining his enthusiasm for delivering that particular prize. "There's a primal thing to building stuff."

Gabrielle Carteris, on the other hand, appeared to be rehearsing for her new real-life role as a TV talk-show host after she delivered the award for physical education and health. "Should schools give away condoms? What do you think?" the former "Beverly Hills, 90210" star fired back at a student reporter who was interviewing her. "How do you feel about condoms in schools?"

Post-Celebrity Blues

As the ceremonies drew to a close, the teachers took time to rave about the five-star treatment they had received from the event's two corporate sponsors.

"Disney and McDonald's had great vision, no pun intended," said Richard Ruffalo, a blind athletic coach from New Jersey's Belleville Senior High who later won the "Outstanding Teacher of 1995" award. And his gratitude wasn't just for small change: As the top prize-winner, he took home $27,500, his school got $27,500, and his district received $10,000.

Ellen O'Rourke Knudsen from Victor Solheim Elementary in Bismarck, N.D., the winner of the early-childhood teaching award, said McDonald's set up a large television in her school's gym so students could gather to watch the ceremonies that evening.

"When I get back there, they're catering Happy Meals for the whole class," she said, adding that the treat is a sure way to her students' hearts.

California's Rodecker called the whole experience "awesome." But he did express concern about the letdown teachers might experience when they returned to their schools and regular teaching schedules.

His proposed solution? "Perhaps Disney should hire some kind of psychologists so we don't go into post-celebrity depression."

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