Alyssa Smith never had trouble answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The 2015 Florida Gulf Coast University graduate always knew she would become a teacher. And she has excelled at this goal, to the degree that she recently was named Lee County Teacher of the Year. Smith graduated with a degree in special education and teaches at Tortuga Preserve Elementary in Lehigh Acres.
“It’s still surreal,” she said. “I am definitely proud of myself and the journey I have had thus far. I am in disbelief that after only five years of teaching I have received such an incredible honor.”
Teacher of the Year candidates are nominated by their school principals. Smith knew she was in the running, but she was in complete shock when Lee County School District officials burst into her classroom with cameras and flowers. She credits her students for the recognition.
“I immediately starting crying because I knew what that meant,” said Smith. “It was an amazing moment.”
Raised in Palm Beach, Smith remembers asking her mom for schoolbooks, which she would use to teach anyone who would listen. That included her two sisters who have special needs. They remained her inspiration for teaching special education.
“Watching them go through school, they had teachers that were not so great and teachers that really made a positive impact,” said Smith. “It really motivated me to teach students like them. I believe that every student, no matter what their abilities, deserves every opportunity both in school and in life.”
Smith teaches fourth- and fifth-graders with a higher level of need in what is called a social functioning classroom. The smaller class size allows her students to get the accommodations they need to learn at their own pace. Her continual attention to each child’s individual academic needs helps them meet their learning goals, even while navigating through a global pandemic.
“We definitely rose to the challenge there,” she said. “A lot of our students don’t understand personal space. They love to love. They love to hug. We have had to be really creative in how to help them.”
Smith’s success in the classroom comes as no surprise to Doug Carothers, FGCU professor of special education. He remembers how, as a student, Smith focused on the human aspect of each assignment. He knew how well that compassion would translate to her future students.
“It is always exciting to see one of our students recognized for their achievements in the community,” Carothers said. “In Alyssa’s case, it is more exciting than surprising because she was one of those outstanding students that did extremely well on all her assignments. She is touching not only the lives of her students, but also those of their families, and I’m sure that others in her school have learned a lot just by watching how she interacts with her students.”
As teachers face a new reality in the classroom with the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith encourages education majors not to get discouraged. She believes the pandemic has made her colleagues stronger by forcing them to think outside the box. She relies on a familiar saying, made famous by a cartoon fish: “Just keep swimming.”
“It sounds cheesy, but I would tell myself and write it on everything,” she said. “I know it probably seems very daunting going into education with the pandemic, but it’s definitely possible.”
Because of her countywide recognition, Smith is now in the running for Florida Teacher of the Year. The Florida Department of Education will announce the winner later this spring.