Some excellent teachers bring excitement and joy to the classroom, while others support their students in a caring and nurturing manner. Thornton Academy’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Kristin Smythe, somehow does it all.
As Teacher of the Year, Smythe has been recognized by Thornton Academy’s administration and fellow teachers for excellence in the classroom. Before being announced as Teacher of the Year in 2020, she was nominated in 2018 and 2019 by her peers.
“Kristin is one of the warmest, most thoughtful, and most genuine teachers with whom I've ever come in contact. I believe she is unmatched in terms of her determination to connect with and motivate her unique student population. She approaches her students' learning and life challenges with calm respect. She is creative in finding interesting and meaningful ways to present her program curriculum, orchestrating myriad elements such as varied teaching strategies, support staff, equipment, materials, and technology. She strives always to enable her students drawn on their unique abilities (Kristin sees their abilities rather focusing exclusively on their "needs") so as to best foster positive interactions with everyone they encounter daily life. In short, Kristin is a star,” said Susan Tarver, Thornton Academy’s Director of Internal Communications, and one of the four TA staff members who nominated Smythe for Teacher of the Year.
Smythe has been a teacher in Thornton Academy’s Functional Life Skills (FLS) program since 2014. The FLS program educates students with developmental disabilities. While some students in the FLS program enroll in mainstream classes with their peers, others remain in the separate classroom for the entire day. Curriculum focuses on independent living skills such as cooking, living independently, preparing to enter the workforce, and developing healthy relationships.
“We meet the students where they are and teach them how to perform basic skills on their own. We create a positive learning environment; a safe place where they are cared for,” said Smythe about the program.
Smythe recognizes that a key component to the success of her teaching and the FLS program is collaboration across Thornton Academy and the greater Saco community. She works to get the students involved in the community as much as possible. They go grocery shopping once a week, visit local businesses, and participate in job shadows and vocational training.
“We have a lot of fun! There are days when I want to stay home, but you show up, and amazing things happen all across campus!” she said.
This fall, some of the FLS students competed in the Special Olympics Bowling Tournament. Smythe invited teachers, staff, and students from across the TA community to send them off. This simple gesture of compassion and support helped the FLS students and staff feel like a valued part of our school.
One recent highlight for Smythe and her students has been the introduction and rapid growth of the Unified Basketball program. Unified sports joins students with and without developmental disabilities on the same team, developing friendships along the way. There has been so much interest in the Unified Basketball program that students created a Unified Club that lasts the entire school year. Smythe is also pursuing a Unified Bocce team with the help of Athletic Director, Gary Stevens.
As with the rest of the school, Smythe and the FLS program are now practicing distance learning. Smythe overcame initial nerves for this change by embracing creativity and fun! She and her staff record a daily “morning meeting” that they post on YouTube and share with the students each day. The morning meetings feature an independent living question of the day, book readings by FLS staff, cooking lessons, math lessons, and a dance party!
“Distance learning forces us to get creative. We have to answer the questions ‘How are we going to do this?’ It has sparked that love of teaching again!” Smythe said.
At Thornton Academy, Smythe is not only involved in the FLS program, but also serves as an advisor for the class of 2021. She also participates in every spirit day and has won Most Spirited Teacher at several recent school pep rallies.
Smythe never planned on becoming a teacher and took an unconventional path to arrive where she is now. She grew up in Florida and previously worked as a legal aide and waitress before earning her B.S. degree in Psychology. When she moved to Maine, she continued work as a waitress. One day, a group of students and their teacher came to her restaurant to celebrate their eighth grade graduation. She served them, and a few days later, the teacher returned with thank you cards for her. This experience sparked a love for working with the Special Education population, and she became a certified Ed Tech and started her career at Thornton Academy.
But the story doesn’t end there. When Smythe entered her classroom that first day in September, she found the same students that had visited her restaurant and sparked her love of education.
Thornton Academy and its students are incredibly lucky to have a teacher that is as dedicated, enthusiastic, and caring as Kristin Smythe. Even though she works with a unique population of students, she embodies characteristics and has a philosophy of education that reaches all learners.