In the middle of Liz Smith’s demonstration lesson, while applying for a job at Bedford Middle School, the fire alarm went off.
That could be a metaphor for teachers everywhere. They always face unexpected challenges. And they’re always putting out fires.
Smith exemplifies her profession. A longtime and highly regarded BMS 6th grade science instructor, she is at various times an educator, psychiatrist, cheerleader, motivator, entertainer, disciplinarian, story-teller, judge, problem-solver, comedian, and surrogate mother.
And that’s just in one period.
Smith is Westport’s 2022 Teacher of the Year. She downplays the honor — “it could have been anyone I work with at Bedford, or anywhere else in the district” — but it is she who advances to state and national Teacher of the Year competitions.
And it is she who was singled out by her principal, Adam Rosen, at a ceremony before the start of the school year.
He described Smith as “universally beloved,” embodying traits like “creativity, ingenuity, moxie and humor.” When he announced her name, she got a standing ovation.
The Westport Teacher of the Year grew up in Leicestershire, England. After college in Liverpool she worked for Kraft Foods. The reason: “They gave me a car, and paid me a lot of money.”
But Smith left, to train as a chiropractor. Six months before graduating, her husband Ian was transferred to the US.
They arrived here 2 weeks before 9/11, figuring they’d be here 2 years.
They’re still in the US. In fact, Liz and Ian are now American citizens.
Her route to the classroom started when her girls attended private school in Greenwich. Smith came in to teach anatomy and physiology.
She loved it so much, she applied to Yale University’s year-long program that prepares men and women for career changes, to teach in the understaffed areas of math and science.
“I certainly could not have gotten into Yale any other way,” Smith jokes.
She was accepted. Then came that interesting sample lesson at Bedford — and the sudden, shoot-all-plans-to-hell fire alarm.
But she was impressive. Then-principal Angie Wormser hired her immediately.
That was in 2006. Sixteen years later, Smith is still at Bedford — and still loving it.
Interestingly, she says, as a child she was terrified of school. She spent weeks in a kind principal’s office, before she was able to face a classroom.
“I don’t think I had the patience to be in a class filled with 11-year-olds until I was 40,” Smith says.
But she adores her students. “They’re just at the age when they can read and write, and they’re excited to learn new things. But their hormones haven’t kicked in — yet,” she notes.
Last week, her classes had just finished their first lab. New to Bedford, and new to the scientific process, they were “so intense and eager. They loved putting on their aprons and safety goggles.”
The 6th grade curriculum includes life science, earth science and physical science. Smith’s goal is to have them want to always learn more science. It’s hands-on, and interactive, with students learning to ask questions and find answers — not the rote memorization Smith had when she was in school.
But there is much more to a modern classroom than identifying rocks in a lab. A random comment sparks a discussion, and that day’s lesson gets interrupted. Today’s tweens go through a lot, and Smith is attuned to her important role in their social and emotional education too.
The post-COVID educational landscape revealed “many gaps” in her students’ communication and life skills, Smith says. As a teacher — and a BMS team leader — she has worked hard to address those.
Though “thrilled to bits” to be named Teacher of the Year, Smith says little will change. She’ll keep doing what she does: “getting involved in the important things like motivation, social and emotional learning, working with our staff. Those are the things that make getting to the content of our curriculum possible.”
After 16 years, many little moments stand out. There was, for example, the girl who told Smith before the holidays: “I could only get gifts for 3 teachers.”
“Oh,” Smith said, preparing to accept the present. “You’re so sweet!”
“Well, you weren’t one of them,” the girl replied.
This year, Smith got a different gift: Westport Teacher of the Year.
It’s well deserved. Because ever since 2006, Liz Smith has given her students the gift of her talents, time, energy, passion and love.
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