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A Missouri high school teacher's advice column helps celebrate students — 'and ourselves'

Kem Smith is an English teacher at McCluer North High School, in Florissant, Missouri. (Courtesy of Kem Smith)
Kem Smith is an English teacher at McCluer North High School, in Florissant, Missouri. (Courtesy of Kem Smith)

Kem Smith, an English teacher at McCluer North High School in Florissant, Missouri understands why many teachers may want to quit their jobs. Years ago, she did.

More than half of teachers are considering quitting their jobs, according to a survey earlier this year from the National Education Association.

Since 2020, an estimated 600,000 teachers have already left the profession as they face stress and staffing shortages that have worsened during the pandemic.

Kem Smith is an English teacher at McCluer North High School, in Florissant, Missouri. She understands why teachers want to quit because, years ago, she did.

But the joy of her calling brought her back to the classroom. And now she’s helping guide others with an advice column for Chalkbeat called “After the Bell.”

Interview Highlights

On telling teachers ‘you are doing better than you think’

“I started on that note because when you hear the frustration many times, we don’t take time to acknowledge that what we’re doing is phenomenal.”

On the need for an advice column 

“There [are] so many layers to what we do on a day-to-day basis that oftentimes we can only talk to other teachers about what we do.”

On why she quit teaching after giving birth to her youngest son 

“It was all too much trying to be a middle school teacher. And every middle school teacher understands you almost have to have, like, some type of special personality to be able to be everything that a middle schooler needs. And just take that and multiply it by …150 kids every day. And to be all of that for those students, and then have a little baby who you need to take care of, is just more than at that time I felt like I could handle.”

On why she came back to teaching 

“Everything I did that wasn’t teaching, it kept being teaching. I had a business and people would come in and say, ‘Oh, this kind of feels like a classroom.’ It’s just, this becomes who you are. And so for me, I missed the calling. I missed the classroom. I missed the autonomy of being able to develop lessons and be with my students and watch them grow and have them come back. And I’m fortunate enough now to work with 12th graders where I actually get to see them graduate and take selfies with them. And then I live in the community where I teach, so I also get to see them when they come back home from college … I really get to watch these students develop through life.”

On what advice teachers write to her for: 

“Many times, it’s the new teacher and they’re trying to prepare … for what happens in the classroom. But you almost cannot until you are in this room with 35 kids looking at you. They’re not interested in your material. They’re interested in the other 35 kids who are around the room. They’re interested in what’s going on, on the Internet. So to capture their attention for over 85 minutes, and be able to engage them, and get work out of them, all of those things are beyond challenging and not even just that. I think people don’t realize that we do our work before and after the students are here. So we do the work that most people have in an office job. Then we have a day full of students and then we do our work after they leave as well.”

On how she answered a query about how to teach U.S. history 

So that one is such a challenge because that is where we are, that we’re on the cusp of trying to figure out what is the reality of this. And then there’s this whole situation where, as a teacher, in order to teach, you have to address the biases that you have. Those things help us to not only be able to understand how to communicate that in a way to a student to where you have an inclusive environment. It helps you to be a better human. And that’s what we’re setting out to do, to just be better humans so that our students will understand that everyone deserves a level of humanity and respect. And that’s what it’s about when you’re trying to teach the truth of U.S. history and history around the world.”

On addressing mental health:

“During the two years of virtual education … this was my first time actually experiencing what depression was like, going from my bedroom to the place in the house that was established for me [to teach]. Our students didn’t have to have their cameras on. So I just sat in front of a blank screen and tried to teach all day … And I did have one student at one point turn his camera on, and I was just like, wow, this is very distracting because I don’t know if maybe his mom had a home daycare because there were just children everywhere. And people live in different situations. You come to school because that is where you’re going to focus on the material. But when you’re at home, there are other challenges that will distract you. And so it was so hard for me to engage my students, and I thrive off of the relationships that I have with them here in school. And when school wasn’t there, I just didn’t have it.

“I did actually pursue and find a therapist that worked best for me, and I was able to vocalize and explain some of the things that I went through. Fortunately, the school was consistently working on a plan to bring us back in person, but even with bringing us back in person, there were so many people in my community who were dying, catching COVID and not being able to recover. And on top of COVID, there was the flu. And on top of the flu, there was what we called in our district, the dual pandemic with race problems and issues all across America with riots. And just all of everything was happening all at once. And it was just challenging.”

On her hopes for the advice column 

“My hope is to say, ‘Hey, this is us. We have our own community.’ Like, we can actually help each other through what may be the toughest time in history.”

On finding balance:

“We have so much on our plates and the magic of teaching is to shut that out for a minute and just find out what’s going on with every student. Find something special about that student and find a way to acknowledge that special part of them, when they are working out of their strengths and doing the best they can and showing up in class. We need to celebrate them and celebrate ourselves.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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