By Keysha Drexel
Pam Smith said she was speechless when what was supposed to be a school event on Halloween became an event to award the Edgewood Elementary School teacher one of the most prestigious honors in the academic world.
“It was a complete surprise. I had no idea what was going on,” she said.
Pam was one of only 32 educators across the country this year to be awarded the Milken Family Foundation Award. In the teaching field, the award is often referred to as the “Education Oscar.”
The award came with a check for $25,000 presented to Pam by State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice at the surprise event.
“This recognition of Pam Yau Smith as a Milken Educator is a direct reflection of her unwavering passion to ensure all students have a depth of understanding of math and science and how that understanding applies to real-world problems needing real-world solutions,” Bice said. “She is a role model for what rigorous and relevant instruction looks like in action.”
Pam, a Learning Enhancement and Academic Design teacher, gives Edgewood Elementary students in kindergarten through the fifth grade hands-on math and science lessons in weekly classes.
Last week, second graders in Pam’s class made slime as part of their studies on the state of matter.
“I like to do hands-on activities where the children can actually experience science,” Pam said.
Pam said she strives to make math and science fun for her students and tries to show them how they will use what they are learning outside of the classroom.
“I try to make what they are learning applicable to their lives and applicable to their lives outside of school,” she said. “If you can make that connection and help the students see this is something they will use throughout their lives, then you have succeeded in creating life-long learners.”
Pam’s first graders went on a leaf scavenger hunt last week, and second graders used playground equipment to sharpen their math problem-solving skills, Pam said.
“A lot of the times the children may be asking why you are teaching them something, and that’s something you have to ask yourself in order to be a successful teacher,” she said.
Otherwise, Pam said, students will be learning concepts just long enough to pass a test.
“I think children are intrinsically motivated to learn, and if you team them in a way that what they’re learning is not isolated to the classroom, they will carry those lessons with them,” she said.
This is Pam’s ninth year in teaching and her ninth year at Edgewood Elementary.
“I did my student teaching here when I was at Samford and then came here to teach after I graduated. This really is my home,” Pam said.
The Memphis native and her husband, Bill, also live in Homewood.
“There’s no other place I’d rather be,” Pam said. “The community support is tremendous, the support from the parents and everyone at the school is amazing. I love it.”
Pam said she always had a passion for math and science and started her college career thinking she would be a doctor someday.
“Then I dated a doctor and I realized that if I wanted to have a family and be a mother, it would probably be pretty difficult to balance that with being a doctor full time, so I switched to education,” she said.
It was a natural switch, Pam said.
“I grew up one of four sisters and we were always babysitting, and I always worked in the nursery at church and loved to be around children, so being a teacher was a natural choice for me,” she said.
Even though she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to educating children, Pam said the first year on the job in the classroom can be tough.
“There are so many times during that first year that are so difficult that you end up thinking you must be the worst teacher in the world, but it all comes together through practice and reflection,” she said.
And proving that practice makes perfect, the Milken Foundation Award is not Pam’s only education accolade.
In a prepared video message played at the Oct. 31 surprise event, Gov. Robert Bentley congratulated Pam on the award and highlighted her many accomplishments.
Since 2007, Smith has served as the lead teacher for the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative as a National Board Certified teacher. She was also among the final four candidates for the 2011-12 Alabama Teacher of the Year award. In the same year, Pam won the Elementary Teacher of the Year Award for the Homewood City School System and was the Edgewood Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Pam said she advises those considering a career in teaching to go into it with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to constantly improve the craft.
“Reflection is so important. Throughout a lesson, think about how you could do it differently or better next time. Constantly think about what you can do to reach the kids and make the lessons meaningful to them,” she said.
Seeing what she is teaching become meaningful for her students is what keeps Pam inspired, she said.
“My students make this job worthwhile. I get excited to see my kids excited about learning. It doesn’t get better than that,” she said.