Any conversation with Joni Smith, Livingston Parish’s Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the state title, frequently includes the words “passion” and “love,” when she describes her sixth- and seventh-grade science students at Albany Middle School.

In discussing her chosen profession, Smith said, “Teaching is more than just imparting knowledge. … It is a passion, a special need to connect with students and to get them excited about the specific subject matter that you must teach.

“It’s showing them that you love them for who they are and not just because they have been assigned to your classroom. It all starts with caring for the students first and then teaching them,” she said.

Smith’s care for her students, and the dedication she has brought to her classrooms, earned her the attention of the Livingston Parish school system, which chose her as the parish’s Teacher of the Year. As the winner of that title, her name and accomplishments were submitted to the Louisiana Department of Education for recognition as the 2017 Louisiana Teacher of the Year.

At the state level, nine finalists were chosen from a field of 48 semifinalists for the ultimate state honor. Smith said her selection as a finalist came as a total surprise.

“I really don’t like accolades, but when I was nominated as Livingston Parish Teacher of the Year, I did consider it an honor. I didn’t expect to be a state finalist, and when the news came, I had butterflies in my stomach. … It was a complete surprise,” she said.

Smith and the other finalists, along with the nine Principals of the Year finalists, will be recognized on July 15 at the 10th Annual Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium and Celebration at the Crowne Plaza Executive Center in Baton Rouge. The symposium and awards program is sponsored by the State Department of Education and the Dream Teachers organization.

Smith graduated from Live Oak High School and earned her degree in education and eventual certification at Southeastern Louisiana University. She said when she entered college she majored in nursing and had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine. However, she adds, her plans changed because her teachers and friends kept telling her she was so patient with others and so caring that she should be majoring in education.

“I have no regrets about changing my career path, and I am very happy that I am now a classroom teacher. God had a better plan for me. This is where I belong … where I was called to be,” Smith said.

After graduating from SLU in 2007, she taught science at Walker Westside Junior High for a number of years before being assigned to Albany Middle School, where she has been since 2014.

Smith said teachers have a “huge impact to make, and when we properly use the role of the teacher, we can watch the knowledge we give our students grow exponentially.

“Teaching is more than teaching, it is about connecting with the children and leading them to the specific subject matter. And teaching is more than just what goes on in the classroom; it’s making students feel good about themselves and making them want to be good members of society,” she said.

Smith said the really good teachers she knows give of themselves to make their students and school better.

“I just strive to constantly improve. I work long, hard hours after school, and I am usually the one who closes the gate after school. But I don’t see teaching as work. … It is doing something that is natural for me, and it is not difficult,” she continued.

Smith said she wants her “kids” to walk in as students and walk out as scientists. She teaches life sciences, which includes elements of biology, cell reproduction, genetics, the human body system and life systems related to facets of science that affect the lives of everyone.

“I try to connect what is taught in the classroom, benchmarks that must be achieved, with everyday life experiences. You can get to students to learn when you can relate to their daily lives,” she said. “In the classroom, I try to establish a climate of learning, safety, family life, security. … I want my students to feel comfortable, to be loved. One of the greatest feelings a teacher can know is when you just feel that the students don’t want the bell to ring and they want to just keep on leaning what you are trying to teach them.”

Smith said she tries to ensure that her classes are not boring and all students are engaged in discussions. She said teachers must be flexible and able to adjust the subject matter to the students filling the desks. She encourages collaborative work and role-playing with each child playing their role. Testing is necessary, Smith said, because it serves as a yardstick on what has been learned. However, she concedes that testing, especially mandated state tests such as LEAP, are a challenge for some students. “Some students have test anxiety, and I have seen tears run down cheeks the moment the state test hits their desks,” she said. “I just tell my students, give it your best and forget the rest,” she said.

Smith said the energy a teacher puts into teaching is reciprocated by the students. “I try to create a climate of caring, of love and passion in the classroom. The students know when you are engaged and you are really trying to get them to learn,” she said.

Parental involvement is important to a child’s education, Smith said, adding that the most successful students are those who have parents who encourage them to study and get the most out of their educational experience. Smith said she realizes some students are more challenged than others but these students need her help and support.

“If 80 percent of the students get the lesson I am trying to teach and the other 20 percent don’t get it, we all go back and repeat the lesson until 100 percent of the students get it. I admit that I had a tough childhood, and so I am able to identify with the struggles and difficulties some of our students have. It’s up to the teachers to try their best to reach all of their students no matter how challenging that can be,” she said.

Conceding that today’s students have many distractions, Smith said some of the extra-curricular activities are positive and enhance the classroom experience. For example, she said athletics can play an important role in the learning process. “Many kids can find an outlet in athletics and participation in sports can work to help them achieve a high grade-point average in the classroom. Many of the coaches won’t tolerate slacking in the classroom, and they encourage their athletes to excel in their studies. Sports teaches them how to work as a team and this is a positive,” she said.

Smith’s principal, Rachael Jenkins, called her award-winning teacher a knowledgeable, hard worker who is passionate about her subject area.

“She loves the children, and she has high expectations for them,” Jenkins said. “She is tough, but fair and she treats all the students equally. Joni is a team player. She is always positive and always upbeat. … She never says anything bad about anyone.”

Jenkins said Smith’s effectiveness was evident in the latest round of LEAP testing. She said Albany Middle School is a Top Gain school, which is a very high honor. She added that Smith’s students earned the most points in her school and helped Albany Middle achieve the Top Gain honor.

“Joni is the really good, model teacher. She loves the children, and they love her back. She is a Christian, and it shows. She is a great asset to our school,” Jenkins said.

For Smith, the learning process involves more than just the accumulation of knowledge. She said she wants her students to learn to give back to the community. For example, she gets her students involved in Helping Hands, a ministry that is involved in feeding the needy. She gets her students to box and wrap food and prepare it for donation to families.

“In a final analysis, I want my kids to ask themselves, ‘Are you leaving a positive footprint or a negative footprint? Did you do a good deed today?’ I want them to learn lessons in the classroom that will stay with them throughout their lives,” Smith said. “I want them to know that they matter, that they are important, that I love them and care for them and want them to succeed. I go to graduations so that I can see my former students earn that diploma and go on about what they plan to do with their lives. That is the ultimate reward for any teacher, to know that the young people whose lives they helped nurture have made it full circle and have become successes in the game of life.”