OAKLEAF – Shadreka Smith knew she wanted to be a school teacher as early as third grade, but what she didn’t know the desire would blossom into a career that’s led her to being a state finalist …
OAKLEAF – Shadreka Smith knew she wanted to be a school teacher as early as third grade, but what she didn’t know the desire would blossom into a career that’s led her to being a state finalist in a prestigious presidential competition.
Smith, a Discovery Oaks Elementary teacher, is representing Clay County as one of the state’s three science teacher finalists in the national Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching competition. She’ll receive a certificate from President Joe Biden if she wins, as well as a paid trip to Washington, D.C., for a teacher-related event and a $10,000 reward.
“I remember getting the email that said I was a finalist,” Smith said. “I was on my lunch break here [Discovery] when I saw it. I read it and I just sat there, soaking it in. I had to let it marinate and I had to let myself feel everything in that moment. It was amazing, and then I finished my lunch break and went back to work.”
That’s the kind of teacher Smith is – she’ll receive some of the most amazing news a teacher can receive and then, when the clock strikes, she’s back in a classroom, teaching students about science or language arts or math.
Smith remembers wanting to be a teacher as early as third grade. It wasn’t for the reasons you’d expect though. She wanted to be a teacher to show future students teachers could be influential, even if hers weren’t. That changed when her family moved to Clay County. She learned first-hand there were great teachers and that Clay County was full of them, something she proved to her all the way through graduation at Ridgeview High. This further inspired her to become a teacher, and so she did.
She first served in the military. Then she was a paraprofessional that helped in classrooms. She recalls teaching in a class at that time with a deaf and blind student. Despite challenges to communicate, Smith felt a real connection with that student and they felt the same connection. The teacher encouraged Smith to pursue a formal career in teaching.
“You’ve got something special about you,” Smith recalls being told. “She saw something in me and encouraged me to go after it...so I did.”
With eight years of teaching behind her, Smith’s career as a teacher has reached new heights. She was nominated by a colleague in the district for the award, specifically for science.
“I felt so honored,” Smith said. “It’s always rewarding when someone recognizes you in general, but to be recognized on that level, it felt amazing.”
This happened around the start of the school year in 2019. The competition is usually an annual one, but the length was extended as a result of COVID-19. After sending in an application, tons of paperwork, video interviews and more, Smith became one of three science finalists in the state and now competing against the other science finalists in the country.
Smith teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts ESE teacher at Discovery Oaks. She’s taught in standard classrooms before and she excelled there as well, but ESE is her calling right now, she feels. No matter who Smith is teaching, though, her methods are the same: make learning fun and create real relationships.
“It wasn’t until I got to Clay County as a student that I learned first-hand the power of a relationship between a student and their teacher,” Smith said. “I was encouraged here to try new things and was taught new ways to learn. Most importantly, I could feel that the teachers here really cared about me...and that stuck with me.”
Smith makes sure her students know that she cares about them, too. One student of Smith said science was never fun until she started teaching it. He couldn’t wait to get to Smith’s classroom because of how fun she made science.
“Every student is a learner, but they’re also an individual and they should be treated as such,” Smith said. “It’s about building a unique relationship with each student and showing them you’re there to help.”
She said since her family was in the military, they moved often and it gave her new perspective on people. She saw people of all races, of all ethnicities, of all walks of life. It’s this insight that helps her connect to anyone and everyone she meets in a classroom.
The process for the final rounds of this presidential award is slow-going, much like anything else happening around COVID-19, and Smith might not learn more until as late as this August. It’s nerve wracking and exhilarating all the same. She’s honored to have made it this far and she can’t wait to learn more, but in the meantime, she’s just as happy to continue doing what she loves to do: teaching.