Nurturing success


A Seymour Community School Corp. teacher has dedicated nearly 40 years to laughing with, learning from and loving her “special” students.

Mary Smith, a special education teacher at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School, doesn’t feel like she works any harder than her coworkers or stands out in any way.

Those who see the impact Smith’s patience, character and skill have on students with special needs think differently.

Recently, Smith, a Scottsburg resident, learned she had been chosen as Educator of the Year by The Arc of Jackson County, an organization that works to support people with disabilities by providing them opportunities to learn, work and socialize in the community.

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She was nominated by fellow teachers and staff at Brown and received the award during The Arc’s annual dinner and banquet held Nov. 3.

First-grade teacher Whitney Reinhart said she looks up to Smith and turns to her for advice on how to handle situations that come up with students.

Smith demonstrates a passion for education on a daily basis, and shows patience and kindness to everyone, Reinhart said.

“Her students are often well below meeting academic grade level standards, and she is able to help make sure they feel successful daily,” Reinhart added.

Smith is currently in her 37th year of teaching. A graduate of Ball State University, she started her career in special education in Shelbyville in 1979. Two years later, she was hired as a learning disabilities teacher in Seymour and traveled to all five elementary schools in the district.

She doesn’t know exactly why she landed in special education, but said her interest may have come from an experience she had in high school.

“I remember helping out with the special ed students in high school and I think that made a big impact on me,” she said.

In 1986, she began teaching full time at Brown, leading the self-contained mildly mentally handicapped class. With the introduction of inclusion in later years, Smith started working with other teachers to help integrate special needs students into general education classrooms.

Now, she spends half her day working in her classroom with small groups of special needs students. In the afternoons, she goes to other classrooms to provide support to special education students in kindergarten through third grade in the general education environment.

Smith said the reason she has remained in special education for so long, despite changes and hardships in the education field, is her students.

“I see God in every child that I meet,” she said. “That is the fulfilling part, seeing God in all these children and watching them succeed. Seeing their eyes light up like they do. That’s what keeps me going.”

Mika Ahlbrand, director of special education for Seymour Community Schools, said she is proud to have worked with and learned from Smith.

“She holds her students to high standards, utilizes thoughtful materials and programming for her students and is a great advocate for students with special needs,” Ahlbrand said.

When Smith first learned she was receiving the Educator of the Year honor, she thought she was getting bad news because Ahlbrand came to her classroom along with Brown Principal Tony Hack and assistant Principal Lisa Speidel.

“All three walked through that door and I thought I was in big trouble,” Smith said.

She wasn’t familiar with The Arc organization, but after attending the awards dinner, she said she was very impressed with the group’s work and how well it supports people with disabilities in the community, especially adults.

Physical education teacher Sharon Wood has worked with Smith for more than 30 years. Over those three decades they have collaborated both in and out of the classroom to benefit students with special needs.

“Through these interactions I have come to know and respect Mary as a dedicated professional who possesses all of the key qualities of an outstanding special educator including intelligence, enthusiasm, sensitivity, compassion, flexibility and organization,” Wood said.

“Her instructional planning for diverse learners, classroom management, assessment, and collaborative partnerships with other teachers, staff, and administrators empowers her students to exceed in their academic goals each year,” Wood added. “She is the first one at school to join a committee, lead a group, or start a discussion to advocate what is best for her students.”

Fellow Brown special education teacher Alysha Johnson said working with students who have disabilities can be challenging, but Smith always does it with a smile on her face, showing her students she appreciates them.

“Mary has such a big heart for all of the students she works with and takes great strides to meet the needs of each individual student, no matter how big of a job that might be,” Johnson said. “Her kind approach makes all students feel loved, safe and welcome, and at the same time, all of her students know she expects them to work hard and give it their best effort.”

Smith said she was overwhelmed and humbled by the kind words of her colleagues.

“I don’t consider myself any more gifted or talented or going above and beyond more than any other classroom teacher,” she said. “There is so much talent here, so I think any classroom teacher deserves educator of the year. They are all amazing people. Everyone at Brown supports each other and that’s what is important.”

Smith said she learns just as much from her students as they learn from her.

“Sometimes their behaviors can be a little trying, but we laugh and learn together,” she said. “Every child has good qualities.”

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