Heart to Teach
Smith finds her way at The W
The students were tucked neatly behind their desks. Their shades of brown, pink and blue were similar to those found in any classroom in the United States.
But this wasn’t any classroom, and their instructor wasn’t just another teacher.
“OK class, repeat after me, arrange … A, R, R, A, N, G, E … arrange,” the teacher said, looking each of her students in their eyes. “Our next word is flexible … F, L, E, X, I, B, L, E … flexible.”
The students remained silent. Their eyes locked on the 9-year-old as she walked between the desks. The 15 teddy bears of all shapes and sizes had no idea that their vocabulary lesson was a first step of a future educator.
Kendashia Smith giggles as she talks about the “girlie girl room” that was her first classroom. Those initial “lessons” helped mold the smartest bears in her neighborhood. They also stoked a desire Smith knew existed from an early age.
“I always knew I wanted to teach because teaching was my way of learning,” Smith said. “I loved to help my classmates and help people read, so I just knew I had the heart to teach.”
Now 23, Smith is sitting in an official classroom in Armstrong Junior High School in Starkville. A blue lectern is stationed center stage right on a brown lacquered floor. There is furniture against the far wall and a pile of dust bunnies on the floor. It won’t take much more time to move the furniture and to sweep the floor to create a sense of permanence to Smith’s first home as a theatre teacher. It’s a place she fits in and that feels right.
Most importantly, it’s a job she feels she has to do, thanks in part to the training and experiences she had at Mississippi University for Women.
“I am a first-generation student, so when I got to college my dad dropped me off and I did not see him again,” said Smith, who is from Memphis, Tennessee, but has lived in Tupelo, Sherman, Pontotoc and Blue Mountain. “My mom and my father were not involved with me in college, so I knew I really
had to push. I feel the energy I have as a teacher comes from an intense feeling of ‘I cannot fail. Higher education is my way to better my life and to better my circumstances.’ ”
Smith found her way at The W. She was active in student government, a sorority and numerous social organizations. She had multiple jobs on campus, including several positions at the Child & Parent Development Center (CPDC). The knowledge she could not stop or back down buoyed an energetic style that caught the attention of professors and peers.
In short, Smith “wanted to do everything,” and, in the process, she earned a degree in Theatre Education (track in secondary education). Her transition from a “nervous” freshman to graduate to professional epitomizes how a student can capitalize on the unique environment and resources at The W and realize any of their career goals.
“There were a lot of times I doubted myself on the journey to The W, but I always had somebody there to pick me up,” Smith said. “I had the mindset I have to get it done, regardless of what happens and I don’t care how long you’re going to work on it, you’re going to get it done and you will succeed. It
is kind of like a mantra I have to myself: I will succeed. I will be successful. This will not burden me because I feel like I have gone through so much that I can get through anything.”
Smith has four older siblings and two younger ones, so there was always plenty going on in her home. Most of her brothers and sisters were involved in sports, but Smith gravitated toward legal studies and teaching at an early age. Her love for children ultimately pushed her on the path to become eacher following a less than invigorating internship at a bankruptcy law firm.
But Smith’s path didn’t have steady footing. She lived with her mother until she was 17 years old and then she lived with her biological father in Memphis, Tennessee for the first time. By the spring semester of her senior year of high school, she wasn’t in her father’s house. That’s when Smith decided she was going to figure it out by herself and she was going to find a way to go to college. She did all of her financial aid paperwork by herself and secured a spot at The W.
The presence of great teachers also impacted Smith. At each step, Smith said her teachers encouraged her and she saw how education could prevent her from having to struggle as an adult. Still, she admitted she wasn’t sure how she would fare in college and that she had to persevere and reach out to others for help.
“I think my motivation came from being a black woman and knowing what life would be like for me if I didn’t get an education,” Smith said. “I saw my mother struggle. I saw my aunt struggle. I saw the women in my community struggle, and I did not want to do that.
“I knew I wanted to do this and I knew I have to and I have to get it done and I have to make it happen. If you have never seen it happen, the thought that it would actually happen for me and it would happen in this way and I could be involved and touch all of these people and meet all of these people, it is like, ‘Wow, I did that.’ ”
Penny Mansell saw Smith do all of that and more. As director of the Child and Parent Development Center (CPDC), Mansell watched as Smith served as a classroom assistant teacher, a substitute teacher and a lead afternoon teacher. She said Smith supported classroom management, behaviors and academic learning and was gifted in the classroom and had a high level of connection and engagement
with the children. Mansell said the experience working in the CPDC and in Jumpstart sessions gave her the practical classroom experience she is utilizing today.
“While it may seem strange to think a secondary education major can gain skills at the CPDC, it’s pretty common,” Mansell said. “They get a foundational understanding of how children learn and behave that can translate to every age, even middle or high schoolers. They learn that connection governs behavior and how to identify the basic needs first. They learn about transitions, communication with staff and families, practicing and teaching expectations, scaffolding and differentiation, special needs, using play-based theory, using the room as a teacher. The list can go on and on.”
Rose Ford, an instructor and the Jumpstart Program site manager for The W’s School of Education, said
Smith contributed to the program’s mission of ensuring the children had the literacy and social-emotional skills needed to succeed in kindergarten.
“Kendashia was one of the most energetic and bubbly Jumpstart Corps members,” Ford said. “Jumpstart is a national organization that serves young children (ages 3-5) at our local program partners at the CPDC. All of the CPDC kids just loved ‘Ms. Katie!’
“She was one of the most talented and creative members. During her service, I observed Kendashia display great love in her service to our youngest campus learners. We are so proud she is still making an impact on her students’ lives!”
David Carter, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Theatre at The W, watched Smith grow as a student and as a teacher during her four years at the school. He said he isn’t surprised she has been successful in her first year as a teacher.
“She has a real ability to connect with students, and she has an excellent repertoire of theatre skills to share with them,” Carter said.
Smith’s ability to connect with her students comes from the nurturing she received from her teachers. She said theatre class always was a “safe place” regardless of where she was, and that she tries to be supportive and enthusiastic about everything her students do, even if they chide her by saying, “There you go again, Ms. Smith.”
Smith also credits her time at the CPDC and as a residence advisor in Kincannon from the summer of 2019 to the fall of 2022 for giving her the hands-on experience to deal with children, teenagers, young adults, attitudes and conflict management.
“I feel like you have to get very energetic and very excited about what you’re doing,” Smith said. “With this age group (13- to 15-year-olds), you have to be kind of playful because if they’re bored or if they don’t understand something or if you’re not loud enough, they’re not going to be listening.”
Smith still has many of the teddy bears that were some of her first “students.” They may not be tucked neatly behind desks, but they listened well and soaked in all of Smith’s vocabulary lessons. They also picked up plenty of life lessons from a teacher who knew early on that she had to and that she couldn’t make excuses for what she didn’t have.
“I have tried not to let my life experiences be an excuse for not being successful. I use it as a motivation,” Smith said. “I use it as a reason why I am successful. I feel like excuses pertaining to circumstances that aren’t in your control and circumstances that just happen to you, you have to deal with them and you have gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta try to get back up. You also have to look at all of the resources available to you and do something with them.
“At The W, I looked at scholarship opportunities, at the websites, what I could get involved in, I checked my email to see what was going on, what organizations I could get a scholarship for. I looked for things that could help me and that I would enjoy and I was able to get out there and do it. You have to. In this life, that is what you have to do.
“If you’re not willing to look for things yourself and find a path for yourself, nothing will ever get done. I couldn’t wait for someone to enroll me in college and drive me back and forth. That wasn’t going to happen, so I had to get out there and do it. I try to tell my students, ‘Nobody is going to baby you and coddle you your entire life.’ ”
That mentality fueled Smith on her journey. While others would have balked at the hard work, Smith dug in and knew there was someone or something that could help her.
“The W experience taught me the value of always being true to myself,” Smith said. “No matter what walk of life you’re from you have something to bring to the table and somebody is going to appreciate you and listen to what you have to say and you’re going to be able to collaborate.
“Collaboration is another aspect that was a key component of my time at The W. In the adult field, collaboration is huge. The third thing is collective responsibility. We all have responsibility every day to support each other, and that is what I took from my time at The W. There wasn’t a day I was on that campus that someone didn’t brighten my day and I didn’t brighten someone else’s day.”
Smith’s face lights up when she remembers one of those special days. She had just started working at the CPDC that summer and she was in a room of napping 1-year-olds, at least so she thought. One girl, Luci, hated taking a nap and wasn’t napping, so when Mansell and Smith crept through the room, Luci ran up to Smith and hugged her. Needless to say, Smith said her “heart was taken” and she knew she was where she needed to be.
Smith knows Armstrong Junior High is where she is supposed to be, too. She is going to be there to listen, to encourage, to motivate and to challenge – just like she did with her teddy bears.
“I know what it feels like to not have someone show up for you, and I want to show up for as many people as I can, so no matter how difficult it gets I am going to get it done,” Smith said. “My teddy bears probably would say I wasn’t as strict with them. They would probably say, ‘Wow Miss Smith. Wow.’ because I feel like I am doing more than I probably ever thought I would do.”