Education

Inspiring Children to Think and Wonder

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As a child, Dr. Sharon Smith admired all of her teachers because they always looked like they were having fun in the classroom. That amusement and gratification is exactly what we all want from our dream job, but she is one of the lucky few to realize it.

“My parents always said to follow your dreams,” said Dr. Smith. “They were always very supportive and valued education.”

She knew at a young age what she wanted be when she grew up and never once entertained the idea of a different career. Her passion for teaching that she has carried throughout her life is exactly why she is this year’s Gwinnett County Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

Dr. Smith graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She went on to earn her master’s from Mercer University and returned to UGA for her PhD in literacy education.

It’s easy to see that Dr. Smith has mastered the concepts and fundamentals behind teaching young children, but what distinguishes her from the rest is her ability to put those concepts into practice and cultivate young minds that are able to think independently.

“Conventionally speaking, I always try to use best practices and a lot of different activities that meet the needs of different learners,” said Dr. Smith. “Unconventional, in that I let the kids take a lot of risks. I’m constantly telling them that if I only teach them two things this entire year, they will leave my classroom learning to think and to wonder.”

As a first grade gifted language arts teacher, Dr. Smith knows the value of open communication and connecting her students to their families. That’s how a pattern that she noticed at home with her three sons naturally progressed into an engaging assignment that gets parents more involved with their children’s school work.

With sincere curiosity, she’d ask her sons, ‘What did you do at school today?’ And per the usual teenage response, each of her children would reply with an indifferent, “Nothing.”

That reoccurring conversation, paired with an incident where a child who was out sick for a week caught
up through the help of a few fellow classmates, established a weekly assignment for her class.

“Every Friday, my students write a letter to their parents in their notebook reflecting on what they did that week and explaining to their parents what they learned,” said Dr. Smith. “Then, the parents write back to them and ask some questions.”

This year, she added a video component to the assignment. Two students are picked to tape a mini lesson, and at the end of the week, the class watches the video and individually choose what they want to write about. The video is also uploaded for the parents to view.

“This often leads to really great questions and gives the students an authentic reason to write with more detailed explanations,” said Dr. Smith. “It’s a good way to make that home-school connection that might otherwise lead to misunderstandings or lack of communication.”

To Dr. Smith, a truly great teacher is one who is never satisfied, pushes themselves, constantly learns and thinks outside the box.

And she is the epitome of an outstanding teacher. Dr. Smith admits to abusing her Amazon Prime account, always ordering the latest releases. Her willingness to research more about anything of which she is unsure inspires her to invent new ways for children to learn.

Most recently, Dr. Smith wrote a grant for a summer intervention program. The $15,000 grant will allow Brookwood Elementary to combine entrepreneurial learning with STEM for a week of creation and discovery for rising third, fourth and fifth graders.

For one week, students will develop a product or service, write an entrepreneurial plan, use technology to create any brochures or advertisements for it, use what they’re learning in math to stay in budget and present it to their peers for purchase. All of this, entirely free of charge to those participating.

“I want my students to see school as a place where learning is fun,” said Dr. Smith. “You have the ability to make a positive impact and hopefully, help shape the future for a child.”

She describes teaching gifted students as an interesting experience.

“The students are in there because they’ve shown through different tests that they’re able to think at that next level,” said Dr. Smith. “We can do similar projects, but I give them more loose parameters, and they thrive on that.”

Dr. Smith strives every day to explore the interests of each individual student and encourage their enthusiasm for learning.  

“I want my students to develop a strong sense of self, be confident in their abilities and know that they are good at something,” said Dr. Smith. “You’re not dealing with things; you’re dealing with lives. Every child that you teach is somebody’s baby, and you always need to keep that in mind.”

Despite all of her best efforts to remain calm during the Teacher of the Year award ceremony, Dr. Smith was not able to contain her excitement as she and Brookwood Elementary’s principal leapt from their chairs at the sound of her name.  

“It was an incredible and overwhelming feeling to win. You don’t ever expect to get an award like this when you go into teaching,” said Dr. Smith. “When I won at
my local school, of course it was very exciting. Just to be nominated by your peers is very flattering, and so I was honored just to win at Brookwood Elementary.”

Yet, through all of the hype and excitement, Dr. Smith takes time to recognize
the phenomenal teachers
she works alongside in Gwinnett County.

“This is an award of representation,” said Dr. Smith. “You have the honor of
representing so many fabulous teachers.”

As a final word of advice, Dr. Smith encourages new teachers to “be fair, be firm when you need to be, be consistent and be loving.”