Kristin Smith always knew she wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when she crossed the stage at her kindergarten graduation and was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered “I want to be a teacher”. Now, she is in her 24th year of teaching and has been selected as the 2022-23 teacher of the year for Dawson County Middle School.
Smith, who teaches middle grades math, said that while she always wanted to be a teacher she didn’t always know that she could teach specifically math.
“I was first elementary certified, never stepped foot into an elementary school except for interning, and then I went back to school for middle grades math and have been teaching middle grades math ever since,” Smith said. “I substituted in a middle school after I graduated in April and realized ‘I can teach just math?’… and that was it, I went back to school. I love math more than anything else, so when I saw that I could teach just math I got excited; I didn’t even know that was a thing.”
At DCMS, Smith teaches accelerated math classes, so she teaches her students a year and a half’s worth of material each year. She teaches sixth and seventh grade classes, so she has all of her same students for two years before they leave her classroom. Because of this, she said that she is able to create a deeper, more personal bond with each of her students.
“I have a different bond with my students than most of the other teachers do because when they leave me after the second year I know them really well and they know me really well,” Smith said. “I have tons of kids that come back to me and ask for help even after they’re not in my class anymore.”
Smith began her teaching career at a charter school in Florida for several years before moving to Georgia when her husband, who works for Comcast, was transferred to the state. After teaching one year in Gwinnett County, she switched to Dawson County and is now in her fifth year teaching at DCMS. She said that, especially after teaching at a larger school like the one in Gwinnett, she couldn’t be more grateful for the small town feel that Dawson County has.
“For me, Dawson has that small, hometown group feeling and we’re all one; that’s what ‘1Dawson’ is,” Smith said. “When I worked in Gwinnett it was so massive, we had 2,500 kids, but here it’s more of a smaller community feel, you feel more like a family, I get to know my students’ parents and it’s more relatable.”
It’s also the kind of system she would want her own children, twin fifth grade boys and a twelfth grade daughter, to graduate from, she added.
“This is what I want my kids to grow up in; my kids come here,” Smith said. “We live in Cumming so they could go to Forsyth schools but I wanted them to have this kind of school atmosphere.”
Smith said that, since she teaches so many accelerated students in her math classes, one of her goals in class is to teach them in such a way that “shows them the why” by demonstrating how they can use math in the real world.
“Because my kids are very accelerated and they’re more of the ‘I want to know why’, so I like to incorporate the ‘why’ by hands-on activities,” Smith said. "So what I try to do is I try to show them the ‘why' in the real world and show them how they would use math in real life.”
One way she did this recently, she said, is by having her students learn about scale drawings by building their own birdhouses. They first researched birds in the area, then designed and drew out a scale drawing of a birdhouse on a piece of graph paper. They then transferred the patterns onto wood using their scale drawings, Smith cut the pieces out, and they put the houses together and decorated them.
Another way she likes to teach, she said, is “discovery learning”, or by letting her students discover mathematical rules and formulas for themselves through asking questions.
“We did an activity with the filing cabinet for them to find out how many sticky notes it would take to cover the filing cabinet, so they had to come up with questions to ask like ‘how big is a sticky note’ and ‘can we go measure the filing cabinet’ and ‘are you covering all of it’,” Smith said. “I don’t like to always say ‘here’s the rule and here’s why it works’, but I like to leave it very open and broad to get them to ask questions, discover the formula and then use it.”
This is the second year that Smith has been nominated for the middle school’s teacher of the year, and she said that the way the school announced the winner was to hold a pep rally and to have the winner’s family come out to celebrate with them.
“I knew I was up for it, so I was sitting there shaking. I was so nervous; all the candidates were all looking at the door waiting to see who walks in and it was my family,” Smith said.
When she saw her husband and children, Smith said that she was excited and honored to know that her fellow teachers, who voted for her to be selected, would want her to get the honor.
“I’m seventh grade chair, I’m on our PBIS team, I’m on our Sources of Strength, so I have my hands in everything and it’s great to know that other people respect the hard work that I’m doing,” Smith said. “It’s all done by the teachers and they have to nominate you to even be considered, so it’s great to know that they cherish what I do.”
Her family and her students were also incredibly excited that she had been selected for the honor, she said.
“My students were very excited; my kids are like family to me because I keep them for so long so they went home and told their parents and all their parents were congratulating me,” Smith said. “And my own children are very happy too.”
In the end, Smith said that she loves her students and what she does, and that being selected as the DCMS teacher of the year is an added bonus.
“I love when the lightbulb goes on for the kid; when you’re sitting there and you have been teaching and you have been teaching and they’re asking the same question a hundred times and they suddenly say 'I get it’ — that’s very rewarding,” Smith said.