She was Miss Plant City High School, Homecoming Queen, a Calendar Girl, Key Club Sweetheart Court, and a Dancer-ette.
The spotlight is nothing new for Dover Elementary School secretary, Barbara Maxwell.
But as she sat on the stage at the Straz Center on February 24th, as a finalist for Hillsborough County’s Instructional Support Employee of the Year, Mrs. Maxwell sincerely thought the spotlight was going to skip her this time.
“Sitting there, listening to everyone else, what the kids said about them, the stuff they’ve done, it really touched me. When I heard their stories, I was okay with whatever happened”.
But Mrs. Maxwell’s story is just as compelling.
She’s practically an institution at Dover Elementary School.
She’s the first face you see when you’re buzzed through the front door. She’s been sitting at that desk since 2004. Before that, she worked as a pre-K aide at Dover – her son went to the school, her husband went to the school, even her father-in-law is a Dover Elementary alum.
She knows everyone—not just at the school, but in the community. Her husband jokes that she should be the mayor of Dover. But to Mrs. Maxwell, it’s just part of who she is. She says her father always taught her to work hard and do her best and her mother taught her to show love and make people laugh -- she does both, always. “I live in Dover so I see a lot of these kids when I go to the Dollar Store… when I go anywhere really. I know these kids, I know their parents”.
That makes her a valuable asset to the school.
She’s not just the first face you see--she’s the first voice you hear, and she’s a wealth of knowledge for families who need a little help. That communication and interaction is her favorite part of her job. “There’s always a parent coming in needing advice. Advice about pre-K, about daycares, the nearest doctor, places to go to learn English. I can help them”.
She’s also a friendly voice to the students who walk through the door--even when they’re tardy. She doesn’t scold, she encourages. Mrs. Maxwell is always quick with a smile or a compliment. She chooses her words carefully. Instead of getting mad, she’ll gently tell the student how nice it is to see them and how it would be extra nice to see them a little bit earlier tomorrow because a good education is very important for everyone.
She treats the staff at Dover Elementary with the same compassion. She calls them part of her family. Not just the staff who’s there now, but the people who have inspired her through the years. It’s been a tough year for Mrs. Maxwell. Her daughter-in-law died in a car crash back in February of last year. Her father passed just this past November. But through it all, she says the staff at Dover has been there for her through thick and thin -- especially with the sudden death of her son in 2006.
That brings us back to the night of the award ceremony as she is standing just off-stage waiting for Superintendent Eakins to announce the winner.
Her biggest fear--that she would let her Dover Elementary School family down, after all they had done for her.
She needn’t have worried.
The woman who wore reindeer ears to work, dressed up as the Easter Bunny, and even wore a strawberry shortcake costume in honor of the Strawberry Festival, was named Hillsborough County’s Instructional Support Employee of the Year.
Mrs. Maxwell gets emotional as she remembers walking out on the stage, feeling very surprised, honored, and blessed to be the winner.
Her husband of nearly 42 years sat in the audience. They were high school sweethearts back at Plant City High School where he played in the band and she shined on the field as a Dancer-ette.
He wasn’t quite as surprised.
“He just told me, ‘well, there’s another queen thing you got!’’’ Mrs. Maxwell said with a smile.