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By Victoria Wright

Associate principal Jennifer Smith

Associate principal Jennifer Smith returns to De Soto District after three years away

Q&A with Associate Principal Jennifer Smith

How long have you been teaching?

I taught for seven years at Gardner, and then I came to Mill Valley and I taught, I believe, six years here. That was three years ago.

What have you taught?

I started off teaching English, and then I moved to teaching Debate and Forensics. When I came here, I started off teaching English, and then I moved to broadcast journalism. Then we had learning coaches, so I did that for a while. Then actually, I was the associate principal before I left. 

Why did you teach what you did?

Kind of interesting, English was something that was always challenging to me. And so, when I went to college, I wanted something that would be a challenge. Because sometimes when things come easy, I get bored. Math and science always came easy for me, and I was like, “I might get bored with this,” so I went into English and I really thought I wanted to be a lawyer. So I was going to go to law school, after I got out of my undergraduates, so I was like, “English would be a good major,” and then I decided that maybe that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, and what was I going to do with an English degree? I also went into education, so I had an English and an education degree.

Where did you go to college?

I have my undergraduate from K-State, and I received my master’s from Pittsburg State. In December, I will finish up my Ed-Specialist degree from Pitt State, and I’ve started my Doctorates this summer with the University of Arkansas.

Is that what you’ve always wanted to do?

I always knew I wanted to work with people, because I enjoy working with people, and so that’s why I chose to go that way. I love to learn, and I love to see people when they have those aha moments and trying to help them get to those moments. That was always exciting for me, being able to see when somebody finally got something. You know, that light and that “Got-it!” There aren’t very many jobs that you get to have that experience.

What made you accept being an this position?

This is going to sound kind of corny, but I grew up in this area. So, I actually grew up in the Copenhaven neighborhood, which is less than a mile from here. And I graduated from De Soto High School, and when I graduated, I had no intention of coming back. It wasn’t like “Oh, I’m going to get a job and I’m going to come back here!” It was interesting, the first time I was hired back, the HR person said, “Well, you know, you’re coming back because you had a wonderful experience?” And I said, “Not to be disrespectful or anything, but I’m not coming back because I had a wonderful experience, I’m coming back because I want to make it better. I want to make a  difference.” I said, you know, “I did school, I did well in school because that’s what my parents expected. It wasn’t because, ‘Yes! I love to be here!’” I loved the activities that I participated in, you know, I was very involved in Drama, actually gifted facilitator Carmen Shelly was one of my teachers. I did Drama, I did Forensics because we didn’t have Debate at that time. I did Newspaper and Yearbook. I did everything. I did Student Council, I was Student Council president, I did Cheerleading. Everything that I could do, I did because to me that’s what school is about. Not just the learning side but also being part of it. I wanted to create an environment where everybody wanted to be part of it. Not just I’m here because I have to be, I’m here because I want to be here. I want to be a part of what’s happening. I want to be a part of making it what it is. Instead of just something that I’m doing just because I have to. And that’s a challenge, because not everybody likes coming to school. And that’s OK, to me that’s kind of what makes this job fun. Because I then get the opportunity to support teachers to try to help them develop and learn, because how I learned is very different from how many people learn now. And so helping people to see how that can happen and how you can blend the two things together.

Why did you chose Mill Valley?

It’s kind of interesting, when I left, this was my first administration position, when I was here, and I realized that you don’t always know what you have until you don’t have it. You always hear, “If you have it let it go, and if it comes back to you, it’s meant to be.” I really think that’s true, because I didn’t know if this is really what I wanted to do. But I knew I wanted to continue my education, and I didn’t know when I was going to do it. I was more mean not knowing how to balance everything I had going on. So I went and I worked with Greenbush for two years and as an educational Consortium, and so how that worked is my office was out of Eudora, and I had 28 different school districts that I worked with across the state of Kansas. Mainly the eastern third. So I went all the way past Emporia up to Leavenworth County, and not too west, but just a little ways. I worked with professional development, doing curriculum work. I’d go and provide in-service for them, so smaller districts that didn’t have a lot of that support. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about the state and how everything fits together, and I loved seeing how different different districts approached the same issues. That was really cool. But what was hard for me is I’m a people-person, and it was really hard for me because I’d only go into a district twice a year. And I wasn’t able to make those connections, because to me, relationships matter, and people aren’t going to care unless they know that you care about them. So, that was a challenge, and then my father became ill, and I needed to be closer, instead of two or three hours away.

Where did you teach before this?

Last year I went to the Shawnee Mission school district, and I did curriculum instruction at the district office. I worked mainly with secondary curriculum development, and that was a great opportunity, too, just to see kind of how a larger school district functions and approaches some of those challenges. But once again I didn’t get to have that one-on-one contact with teachers and students. It was like, “Alright, we’re going to do curriculum work, come on in!” And you would build those relationships but you would never get to see the end product and what happened in the school and in the classrooms. And I realized that that’s what important to me, and as I told Principal Tobie Waldeck when we were going through the interview process, “I have had the opportunity since I left here to work with 29 different school districts. And none of those districts have the feel that Mill Valley has. No one has that environment and that culture that we have here. And I think that there are a lot of amazing things that happen. Just to have that opportunity to come and be apart of that again, and to help to continue to grow, and make this an even better place, that’s really exciting for me. And that’s why I wanted to come back, you leave and you’re like, “This is my high school, most days it feels awesome and I’m glad to be here,” but I don’t think people have any idea how good it is.

What do you think will be different?

I think the biggest thing is the staff that we have here at Mill Valley. All teachers care, but there are a lot of people here that go out of their way to do what’s best for kids. To give our students the best opportunity that they can have. And you don’t see that everywhere. There are a lot of places that people come [to work], and it’s their job. And it’s work. You wonder if they really want to be there. And we all have some of those days that may not be our best day, 110 percent might actually be 60 percent that day, but, on average, I would say everyday our teachers are going out there and doing everything they can for the kids. They care, it’s not just about, “I’m here to teach math so we’re going to do math.” It’s more, “I’m here to teach you, as the student.” And I think that’s important because that’s not everywhere. It’s more welcoming; people make eye-contact and say “hi.” I’ve walked through schools and people wouldn’t say anything. It’s hard to explain that feel, like unless you’ve been to other schools and you see how it can be cold sometimes. It’s nice because it’s a larger school and you don’t get that feel too often in a school this size.

What are you expecting from Mill Valley?

Everybody always has goals and expectations, and I would say that my biggest goal is just to continue to grow and to continue to listen to each other and to learn from each other. To continue to have that environment that has made us what we are. I think all too often sometimes we get fixated on the small details and we forget about the big picture and what makes us Mill Valley.

Is there anything to hope experience from this?

I’m looking forward to once again being able to get involved with all of the activities that happen here. I’m looking forward to being in the classrooms and seeing the great things that happen. I’ve told several teaches that were here when I was here previously, I said, “You know, if I just wander into your classroom, don’t think anything is wrong. I just want to see what’s going on.” Because to me, that’s where everything happens. And I said, “I haven’t been able to see it for three years. That’s what I’m excited about.” Being in the rooms, just being able to see everything that’s going on, being able to participate in all of the activities. Whether that’s athletics or whether that’s Homecoming or whether that’s celebrating the accomplishments that you guys make with your journalism. That’s what I miss, because I haven’t been able to be a part of that.

What in particular do you look forward to the most?

It’s hard for me to say that one thing’s my favorite, that I really enjoyed because that’s what I really like about this school. There isn’t just one thing. There are so many different things, so that everybody, if they want to, can find a place where they can make a difference. And I think that’s what makes us unique. People don’t say, “well I just can’t wait for this to happen!” Now besides seniors, they may be waiting for graduation to happen so they can move on to that next step, that’s what I really like about being here. There’s not just that one thing that someone can wait for, because for most people, when that one thing happens it’s just like, “OK I can’t wait for this next thing!” There’s always something that you can do, because you have your plays, your musicals, you have your band, you have your choir concerts. You have all kinds of things, so I really can’t truly say there’s one thing that I’m looking forward to, because I’m looking forward to seeing all of the great things that you guys do this year, no matter what it is. I think that’s what’s really exciting. There’s lots of amazing things that happen here.

Finally, do you think it will live up to your expectations?

Oh, I know it will. Working on my Doctorate, starting it this summer, I had to select an area to study, to do my research around and to write my dissertation on. And I came back to, as I was looking at all the slides and pictures and thinking how to put my presentation together, “We ARE Mill Valley.” And when you really look at the “ARE”- the achievement, the responsibility and empowerment, that’s truly what I see every day in our students. And that’s what’s exciting. I have no doubt that those expectations will be met.

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