Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Above and Beyond: One Teacher’s Quest to Transform Communities Through Education

Above and Beyond: One Teacher’s Quest to Transform Communities Through Education

By David George

Located in the heart of Abilene, Stafford Elementary is home to a group of remarkable teachers, and Taniece Thompson-Smith is no exception. Now teaching fifth-grade science, she has classroom experience in more than seven school districts across the world, and, as the 2024 Texas Elementary Teacher of the Year, she represented Texas in the National Teacher of the Year competition. The Texas Teacher of the Year program is facilitated by the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA).

Smith’s story spans multiple continents and over 14 years in the field of education. During this time, she has faced a multitude of challenges while earning numerous prestigious titles, including 2023 Region 14 Elementary Teacher of the Year and 2022 Abilene ISD Teacher of the Year. But more importantly, her unique talents and life experiences have inspired those around her and continue to help transform students’ lives.

“Alone, I could do none of this,” Smith admits. “I have been surprised and delighted by this journey. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be here with such an important platform to share my thoughts and experiences.”

Coming to America

Smith’s adventures in education began at 18 years old when she began attending a teachers’ college in the Caribbean. At that time, bachelor’s programs were not available to her, so she began a three-year teaching certification program. But Smith’s efforts were cut short when her family migrated to the United States after her second year in the program.

“I was so sad to leave because I’m not a person who likes to start something and not finish it,” Smith says. “I was devastated. I spent my whole first summer in the United States studying because I was so sure I was going to go back to that school and do the exams I was missing when I left.”

Within the year, Smith enrolled in Brooklyn College in New York. She remembers hearing breaking news of the Columbine High School massacre.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Smith says. “Growing up in the Caribbean, guns and schools were never in the same sentence. It was different. I was so appalled when that happened, and like every teacher, I got really scared. I worried a great deal, and I even started to wonder if I could ever find the courage to enter a classroom and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.”

At the time, Smith had a neighbor who was a computer programmer, and he suggested she learn the basics of computers.

“This was the first time that I ever saw a computer,” Smith says. “I was so mesmerized just looking at the wallpaper. I had never seen anything like that.”

Smith’s neighbor persuaded her to learn typing and register for a computer class.

“I wasn’t exactly happy doing it,” Smith says. “But I just knew that I needed higher education, so I decided to major in the subject. I ended up working in a hospital admissions department, but my heart wasn’t really in it.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Smith remembers telling her husband: “I really want to go back to school for education. This is what I was born to do.”

So Smith did just that. She completed a graduate-level teacher certification from Rider University, and it wasn’t long before she finally taught her very first class in New Jersey.

Two years into the job, Smith’s husband—who spent over 23 years active-duty in the U.S. Air Force—received orders to Travis Air Force Base in California. As a military spouse, Smith found herself moving again, but this time it would be even more difficult to leave.

“Before this move, I had never really thought or processed what that would mean emotionally,” Smith says. “I was devastated. After so many years of not doing what I wanted to do, I was finally teaching, and the school was nearly perfect. The kids and their parents were just amazing. It was tough to let go, but duty called.”

The trip was emotionally draining for Smith. She remembers crying half the way to California as she and her husband drove across the country with twin baby girls.

“I was worried I might never experience the happiness I felt as a teacher again,” Smith recalls.

In California, Smith had to take additional classes to get recertified, as well as take care of her two toddlers. Her family was back to a single income, and the time and money it took to complete the required courses was difficult to manage.

“I love my kids, and being a mom means everything to me, but I knew that I was called to teach,” Smith says. “For me, I needed to get back into the classroom.”

Starting Over

A year later, Smith earned her California teaching certification and started again from scratch. She found a job as a high school teacher working at Visions in Education Charter School, and like before, she was in love. She worked with students who struggled in the traditional school setting, and Smith cherished the opportunity to encourage and motivate them to dedicate themselves to their education.

“I would tell them that even though this one thing happened in your life, it did not have to define what the rest of their life could be,” Smith says.

Smith admits that when it comes to teaching, she falls in love everywhere she goes. It didn’t take long in her new role to forget the pain of leaving New Jersey. She also enrolled in a master’s program at California State University in Fresno.

As luck would have it, the very weekend of Smith’s graduation from her master’s program, her husband got orders once again—this time to Japan. Again, Smith would have to leave a school she loved.

“We knew it would be difficult not knowing the language or culture, but we had no second thoughts about whether it was the right thing to do,” Smith says. “I was determined to make the best out of it.”

In Tokyo, Smith tried to get a job at the school on base, but she ran into an all-too-familiar roadblock. She was told she was not qualified to teach kindergarten and would need to go back to school—even with all her teaching experience and a master’s degree in education.

“Both my certifications from New Jersey and California that spanned many grade levels were not good enough,” Smith says. “It was painful to hear, but that’s the life of a military spouse who wants to have a career.”

Smith and her husband once again dipped into their savings for her to go back to school. As soon as she earned the necessary certification, Smith found a job in the Japanese school system.

“My experience teaching in Japan had a profound effect on me,” Smith says. “It forever changed what I knew to be possible within education. There are so many things about that culture that have influenced my teaching. Discipline and respect in their classrooms are out of this world, and their focus on nutrition and hygiene gave me so many ideas. They took the students’ well-being very seriously, and it made me realize that we are capable of so much more.”

Smith learned enough Japanese to order food and talk to colleagues who didn’t speak a lot of English. She also learned to prepare ramen, tempura, and sushi at home. But she encountered more challenges than just a language barrier.

“I remember several occasions where I was utterly perplexed,” Smith says. “Often, when riding on the train, I would get confused about the stops. I remember the first time I saw people exiting the train and not knowing whether I should as well.”

Smith believes that her sense of nervousness and even the helplessness she felt on those occasions now helps her to better understand the struggles of her students.

“That experience of being in a foreign country and struggling with everything really impacted me as a teacher,” Smith says. “When my students get stuck, instead of thinking ‘I have already taught them this,’ or ‘This is so simple,’ I think back to those times on the train where I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

“And that’s part of what Japan did for me. It helped me to better understand what my students are going through, especially those from other countries and cultures.”

High Expectations

After teaching in Japan for five years, Smith felt trepidation about coming back to the United States.

“I didn’t even know where Abilene is,” Smith says. “I was extremely nervous, and at that time, I had no idea of the background of Stafford Elementary.”

Once Smith and her family settled into Abilene, she interviewed for a position at Stafford Elementary with Principal Melissa Scott. Scott, who has worked in Abilene ISD since 2014 and took over as campus principal that year, was looking to reorganize the school and transition the failing Lee Elementary into the model teaching school that Stafford Elementary has now become.

This school was modeled after the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, where educators visit classrooms to engage in professional development and observe best practices in action.

When Smith interviewed for the position, Lee Elementary was in the process of transitioning to Stafford, and all of the teachers had to reapply for their positions. Just four years ago, Lee Elementary was graded an “F” in the state accountability system. The district’s decision to make a drastic change and bring on Scott has completely turned things around.

“I hired all new teachers and staff to come in with the mindset that all students can learn if we hold them high expectations,” Scott explains. “I specifically chose teachers—including Taniece—with a growth mindset who are excited about learning and collaborating.”

This fresh perspective had an immediate impact with a 20-point increase in the state accountability system rating after just the first year, and things have continued improving.

“We’re still continuing to make a lot of gains with student achievement, and I think it has a lot to do with teachers such as Taniece who are so focused on doing whatever they can for students,” Scott says. “From an analytical perspective, Taniece is incredibly effective in the classroom. Before she took over her science class, only 34% of students were passing. After just one year, she had turned around the science program with double-digit gains in student scores.

“And then again in year two, after refining her processes and building upon what she had started, another set of double-digit gains. She has been so effective and dialed in to reflecting and refining that student success is all but guaranteed.”

Smith remembers being offered the role of fifth grade science and social studies teacher and being nervous because it would be her first time to teach science at that level.

“I’ve taught younger and older grades, but I was so nervous,” Smith recalls. “I went home, and I told my husband, ‘I don’t know what I just did.’

“So I enrolled in their professional development that summer and took every science class that I could find. There was this amazing lady—she’s a fifth grade science teacher at another school in the district, and her name is Jennifer McLean. She took my notebook, and she wrote her number in the back and said ‘Whatever you need, you call me. I’m here.’ And she’s been my mentor for the past two and a half years.”

Making an Impression

The day Smith was announced as Texas Teacher of the Year, she hadn’t even prepared a speech. She recalls meeting the other teachers who were nominated, and she could clearly see they were phenomenal.

For Smith, Teacher of the Year is an opportunity to be a voice for so many hard-working teachers not only on her own campus, but also across the state of Texas. She is grateful to speak for others who spend so much of their personal time working on behalf of their students and often go largely unnoticed.

“It’s a call to service on a higher plane, and my only worry is that I represent all of the teachers in the state of Texas well, however far this goes,” Smith says. “Whether that be speaking or writing articles on their behalf, I want them to feel heard, and I want them to be recognized for all of their hard work and sacrifices every day of the school year.”

Smith currently teaches fifth graders, and she was surprised at how deeply they process the Teacher of the Year award. Just after receiving it, she recalls performing her morning cafeteria duties—helping the students open juice boxes and put straws in their milk—and one of her students approached her with a card.

“She wanted to congratulate me and tell me what I meant to her, explaining that when she lived in Africa, she felt that science was her enemy,” Smith says. “She struggled so much in school, but because of her experiences in my classroom, science is now her friend.

“That brought me to tears because I consider myself a science enthusiast and lifelong learner, but I am not on the level of a physics or chemistry teacher. Even without a real science background, I was able to inspire a child to embrace a subject that she had previously dreaded. She told me that because of me, she could now see herself pursuing a career in the sciences, and that’s what inspires me to teach.”

Smith says her main goal in the classroom is to spark her students’ curiosity to the point where they can’t wait to share what they learned in class with their families. That’s why Smith is an ideal candidate for the National Teacher of the Year recognition, Scott says.

“She connects with so many different people because she has all these different platforms,” Scott says. “She’s taught in different countries and immigrated to the U.S., so she understands the challenges of learning new languages and transitioning into an entirely different culture.

“She understands what it is to serve our country as a military spouse and all of the hardships associated with that. She recognizes the opportunities that being a U.S. citizen has afforded her, and she doesn’t take anything for granted. She is always looking for new opportunities to grow, learn, and challenge herself, and her gratitude is contagious.”

Scott believes another secret to Smith’s success is her humility and passionate spirit.

“She exudes positive energy,” Scott says. “She inspires and uplifts those around her, and she does it effortlessly. When she speaks, everybody listens and you’re a better person for it. I think one of our staff put it best, ‘Taniece puts into words what we’re all feeling.’”

Transforming Her Community

As the only fifth grade science teacher, Smith enjoys working closely with teachers from other grades who teach the subject as well.

“They are phenomenal teachers, and we regularly get together, plan, and collaborate,” Smith says. “We have our professional learning community together, and all the way down to kindergarten, I go into their classrooms, and we do activities together.”

Smith believes community members should get involved in education as much as possible to encourage student success by giving back and sharing their expertise with classrooms.

Once when Smith was preparing a unit on animal adaptation, she sent a text to school staff asking for any type of help they could provide. The school nurse responded by taking a personal day and having a friend bring their own horse to the school so Smith’s students could get up close and personal with the animal.

Smith attributes much of her success at her new campus to both her fellow teachers and her administration.

“It is truly unbelievable what the principal and vice principal have accomplished here,” Smith says. “They took a once failing school, brought in the right teachers, and somehow managed to turn everything around and support us all the way.”

Smith believes that she is blessed to be a part of a community that regularly goes above and beyond to support her.

“We collectively want to transform this community through education,” Smith says. “We want the students to leave our school and have this hunger that only further education can satisfy.

“We are a Title I school, and our students have real struggles,” Smith says. “But the demographics aren’t what needed to change. It is all about our mindset and tackling issues with the transformative power of education. We need our children to be scientifically literate because they are the next generation of thinkers and doers, and they need to be properly prepared to meet the challenges of the next 100 years.”

No Place Like Home

After Smith’s husband retired from active-duty military service, he asked her if she wanted to settle down in Abilene.

“I told him that with the support I have received from the community here, they deserve to have someone who’s invested in their children’s education and future,” Smith says. “And even now, I think of all the love I have for these students, and I know that my job here is not done.”

Having moved so much over her career, this was Smith’s first opportunity to finally call a place her home.

“At every other point in my career, I didn’t want to plan too far ahead because I knew that it couldn’t last very long,” Smith says. “I never got the chance to see my students after they left my class because I never stayed in the community long enough. And now, for the first time, I get to experience home, and we are so excited.”

Constantly inspired by her students, Smith is humbled to think that they can look at her and see a role model.

“When my students come to me and say, ‘Miss Smith, I want to be just like you,’ I feel inspired,” Smith says. “I know I still have a lot of work to do on myself, and that fuels me to be even better. As teachers, we are role models whether we want to be or not. So I need to be an example for those children that—just like me—have struggled and have been through hard times. They need to see my successes and know that they can achieve anything they set their minds to.”