Building Greatness

WORDS Jennifer Burchett
IMAGES courtesy Jennifer Burchett and First Lego League

Mar 1, 2023 | People


Sometimes teachers stay with you long after you’ve left school. They’re the ones whose words linger after their voices have faded in the background of life, after you’ve graduated and moved on from those quintessential younger years when writing your name or solving a math equation made you the biggest superstar there ever was. Most of us are lucky to come across one, maybe two such teachers in our lifetime, but at Ballman Elementary there are many. One of them is Mrs. Karen Smith. 

Her presence is remarkable, yet if it weren’t for the effect she has on others, oftentimes you’d never know she was in the room. It is with the kindest words and gentlest voice that she gets the attention of her kindergarten class, and in a similar manner communicates with peers and parents with whom she collaborates daily. Being a teacher for thirty-two years has taught her a thing or two, not least of which is that around every corner, through every twist and turn in the hallways and hearts of children’s learning journeys, there’s no task too great or too small to conquer.

Laura Gladden, Ballman Elementary School Principal, says, “Karen’s biggest strength is building relationships with colleagues and students. She provides opportunities for students to learn in her classroom by working together as a team.”

Several years ago, Karen helped one of her kindergartener’s parents learn English by allowing them to sit in her class for an entire year. During that time, the parent observed the fundamentals of language, phonics, and reading, while Karen made it a point to provide insight that helped them on their specific journey. Then she went even further by helping them earn their citizenship.

It was a milestone for the parent, an inspiration for their child, and a learning opportunity for all of them. With the parent’s advancement, the child’s educational outlook increased dramatically. Karen gave the family the tools to learn from the inside out, not the outside in.

Throughout the years, Karen has helped many parents earn their GEDs and achieve other educational and personal goals. For Karen, it’s all part of the job.

She looks back on the experience with fondness. “I am a lifelong learner. If I don’t know something, then I’m going to figure it out. I even do that with my kids in class. If they ask me something and I don’t know the answer, I tell them. I want kids to know that it’s okay not to know everything, and it’s okay not to get the right answer the first time. That’s what I do with my kindergarten kids and that’s what I do with the Lego Robotics team.”

When this school year began, a new challenge presented itself. Ballman Elementary needed a teacher to coach its Lego Robotics team for fourth and fifth graders. Karen took on the opportunity and promptly let the games begin.

There was just one thing; Karen knew diddly about Lego Robotics or of the competition regulations. Regardless, she accepted the challenge and led the team with fierce determination. Karen didn’t let what she didn’t know stop her, nor did she let it hinder the team’s chances of success. She was diligent, always pragmatic, and sensible enough to seek help and support from other coaches in the region. What Karen didn’t know, she figured out, and thereby taught the kids to do the exact same. No obstacle was too great to learn and overcome.

In addition to building their robot and coding it to accomplish specific missions for points, the team also had to come up with an Innovation Project, a portion of the competition where teams solve a real-world energy problem with creative solutions. During competition, this is conveyed to judges by an extensive interview. It was a lot for a group of fourth and fifth graders to take on, particularly when they were up against eighth graders, but they put on their game faces and coded full steam ahead.

Slowly, week by week, practice by practice, Karen and her team learned together and grew stronger, confident in their ability to solve any problem that stood between them and success. As the newly named Bashing Bots progressed through the semester, it was apparent Karen’s ambition for the team was equally matched by her support for every one of the students. They trusted her, and knew they had all the building blocks they needed for success. The students who didn’t know how to code, learned. The students who knew how to code, taught. And every child who had an idea was heard. They all leaned on each other.

During a presentation to community stakeholders and the school’s partners in education meeting before the qualifying competition at Peak Innovation Center on December 3, 2022, Aubree Sonnier, team captain, shared, “We all worked together, and we all did everything. If we didn’t know something, we figured it out. It was a lot of fun.”

The team’s hard work and dedication paid off. The Bashing Bots qualified for the State Tournament and won the Core Values Award for their exemplary use of First Lego League’s core values of Inclusion, Innovation, Impact, Discovery, Teamwork and Fun. At State competition this January, the Bashing Bots won the Breakthrough Award. Though they did not advance further, what they truly won was clear – a team of lifelong learners, and lifelong teachers.

Terri Jones, an educator at Ballman Elementary and good friend of Karen’s, shared this, “I have known Karen for thirty years. I have spent years in her class as a paraprofessional. We would bring our bread machines to bake bread. Karen is exactly what you see. She is kind, loving, caring and funny. Her heart is made of gold. She wants each of her students to succeed, and she will go above and beyond for each of them. She is there for all her many friends. She loves her school family. She jumps in whenever anyone or things needs to be done. She gives to her students and their families anyway she can. So many things she does go unnoticed.”

There is no end in sight for Karen and her many team efforts. She continues to help her students and their parents traverse the learning landscape in and out of the classroom. She remains a steadfast supporter of her school and its educators. The Bashing Bots continue to practice, and already have their sights set on next year’s season. Nationals is their goal.

It is not with passive intentions that one teaches. It is an active, intentional, fierce profession that seeps out of the cracks of any classroom. And for Karen Smith, inspiration is her repertoire. She isn’t just a kindergarten teacher; she is one of many lifelong learners at Ballman Elementary guiding young minds and their families to greatness.

Throughout Karen’s career, she has taught students and built lifelong friendships. They all say the same thing. What you see with Karen is what you get, and every word she speaks comes from the heart. It isn’t for show or to gain favor, or simply because she’s paid to do it. Every ounce she gives is authentic and lingers in the halls and in the hearts of the students she leads long after the bell has rung.

Do South Magazine

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