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Relentlessly Positive Lifelong Learner

When students "catch the scientist bug,"  Joe Smith knows he’s done his job well.

“A scientist doesn’t follow a preset procedure – they ask questions and take ownership,” says Smith, an AP Biology teacher at Trinity High School in Washington, Penn., and NMSI’s February Teacher of the Month.

Smith recently watched his students learn a skill in a photosynthesis lab and then choose a variable that wasn’t part of the original lesson. These budding scientists borrowed lights from a physics class to figure out what would happen to plant leaves under different light intensities – a step they weren’t instructed to do.

Growing up, Smith spent a lot of time outdoors and learned from his mother, who worked in the medical field. By his freshman year in high school, he developed a passion for biology and knew he wanted to become a teacher. In college, he tutored around 20 fellow students in his room the night before a biology final exam.

Students are Students
While technology has changed in his 38 years of teaching, Smith says one thing hasn’t: the students.

Kids live in a world where they have much less of an opportunity to disconnect, but the kids themselves haven’t changed,” Smith says. “What they’re looking for is to be accepted as part of a group and as individuals. From teachers, they are looking for someone who can hold them accountable for things without being heavy-handed about it.”

Students often question how Smith can be relentlessly positive – something he takes pride in. Between classes, he stands at his door and greets every student by name, knowing that may be the only or one of a few times students have this connection each day.

“They aren’t just another student in my class,” Smith says. “I know who they are and try to make them feel they are important in my room.”

Trinity Principal Craig Uram sees Smith’s dedication to students in action.

“When community members think or talk about Joe Smith, they always mention his commitment to educating all students within his classroom,” Uram says. “Mr. Smith routinely begins his workday at 6 a.m. If students need extra assistance, he is willing to meet with students before or after school to offer students academic support.”

Smith continually reinvents how he delivers content and considers himself a lifelong learner. He refines his lessons so that he isn’t teaching in the same way every year. In recent years, he’s incorporated more biotechnology and new discoveries in genetics. “Our understanding of genetics has changed so completely since I was in college,” he says.

Another way he keeps lessons relevant is using data to meet individual students’ needs. Smith discovered that if students don’t perform well on standardized reading tests, they are less likely to pass the AP Biology exam, which relies heavily on reading comprehension. “A lot of times, kids aren’t struggling on the biology vocabulary,” Smith says. “Their overall vocabulary isn’t as large as other students.”
At the beginning of the school year, Smith identifies students that need help with reading and gives them more advanced feedback on what they missed, including strategies for finding answers to questions within a text. He also sometimes asks these students to use a highlighter to identify terms they aren’t familiar with in the reading.

NMSI Partnership
After participating in NMSI’s three-year College Readiness Program, Trinity High is currently using continued services from NMSI this school year. Smith says NMSI teacher trainings have been high quality, even for someone who has taught for decades.

“I’ve never been to a NMSI training where I couldn’t take something positive from it, like an activity I could use or an insight from other teachers that is a tweak to an original lab that works better,” he says.

The NMSI program also helped increase the recognition and celebration of AP scholars at Trinity. Before NMSI, Smith remembers a student who took 16 AP exams and scored 5s on 15 and a 4 on one (on a 5-point scale), but “no one made a big deal out of it.” Now, AP students have a banner in the lobby that highlights their accomplishments and are featured in an academic pep rally in the fall.

Looking back, Smith wouldn’t change a thing about his choice to pursue education as a career. “I make a point to tell people thinking about education that it’s a wonderful field. Kids still need good role models.”

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us how they're making a difference in math, science, English and arts education.