Spotlight: Chandler Smith (LA '15)January 27, 2016
Plaquemine High School Principal Chandler Smith (LA '15) isn't much older than his students, and he uses that to his advantage: "I want them to be able to talk to me and relate to me," he says. Smith received his Milken Educator Award on October 28, 2015.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Chandler Smith: I was a youth minister at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and then the Christian Education Director at St. Margaret's, a small Episcopal church in Baton Rouge. At St. Margaret's I worked with middle and high school students setting up classes on Sundays and Wednesday nights, and I was in charge of the vacation Bible school for the little kids. There was some theology, but we were also trying to build their characters and develop their spiritual and social lives.
After I started on my master's, one of my professors became the superintendent of St. Helena Parish, a high-poverty rural parish, and she offered me a position. I supervised the parish's technology, maintenance and federal programs, like Title I. I also ran an after-school program through the Boys and Girls Club of Baton Rouge. I knew it was going to be a big challenge: When I say "rural," I mean there wasn’t one stoplight in the entire parish. But they were great people who really cared about you and remembered your name. One of the parish's high school buildings burned in a fire, and that opened my eyes to the need in public school.
I was 29 when I became a principal in 2012. I think being a young principal, and having the experience as a youth minister, changes the way I interact with the kids. I try my best to talk to them. I want them to be respectful of me, but I want them to be able to talk to me and relate to me. I sit and work in our school's internet cafe, I eat lunch with the kids. A role model shouldn't be just authoritarian. My age helps with that; I'm not the gray-haired man sitting behind a desk.
MFF: What was your first job ever?
Chandler: When I was 15 I was in charge of sports at my high school's aftercare program. I wasn't an athlete — more of a drama and music nerd — but they didn't have anyone else to do it. I learned two important things. First, relationships are important. I tried hard to get to know the kids' parents and the other teachers. And second, I'm not great with elementary-age kids.
MFF: Who was your most memorable teacher?
Chandler: Peter Barnes. He taught me 11th- and 12th-grade Bible class and led our choir. He was a good, moral person and a very good role model. He was always there if you needed to talk to someone and gave good advice. If I'm a third like him, then I’m doing really well.
MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching.
Chandler: It was a magnet program and I knew I needed to be on my game. I taught civics, world history and digital media to 10th-graders, and then I had those same kids again in 11th and 12th grade. The biggest challenge was that the school was only in its second year and we had to create a lot of procedures and figure out how things would get done. Our chief academic officer was very innovative, but there was a lot of pressure to make sure both we and the kids lived up to his expectations. Those kids still come and visit me.
MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. How do you convince him or her?
Chandler: Honestly, we don't get that many kids saying it. But we can change that. I think we should revamp our graduation pathways and create one for teaching. Manufacturing and welding is a popular pathway for many of our students; kids know they can graduate high school and make $25 an hour as a welder. We need to get kids to think about what it means to be a teacher. When they're seniors, they should be able to go teach a middle school class and get that experience working with younger kids.
To those who are interested in teaching, I would say you've got to be patient and very careful about everything you do or say, because you're a role model. And I would encourage them to go see what's out there in the world before entering the classroom. I don't think it’s good for people to go right into education straight from college.
MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?
Chandler: I hope and pray that it makes the students and the staff, the faculty live up to the expectations that Mr. Milken has for educators and students to achieve. That day was so huge. When they saw that people were looking at the data from our school all the way out in California, it made them think globally (or at least nationally) about where they stood and what the expectations are. I hope they took that day and said, "Well, man, let’s raise our expectations — I think we can even exceed this." Graduation is one area where we can still improve. When I got here it was 59 percent, and now it's at 76 percent. I'm not going to be happy until it's above 90 percent.
I got a lot of hugs and congratulations and questions about what I'm planning to use the money for. The students didn't love my answer: They wanted me to go to Disneyworld, but I used most of it to pay off my student loans.
MFF: What's your favorite time of the school day?
Chandler: Six-thirty in the morning, before anyone is there. I like to get a cup of coffee, go through my emails, take 30 minutes to plan my day. Then I'm ready for the first kids getting off the bus at seven. I usually go into the cafeteria when they're eating breakfast.
MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars for your school, what would you do with it?
Chandler: There's a waiting list in our manufacturing graduation pathway, and we've been trying to find a corporate partner to do a new pathway in pipe-fitting and millwright (factory design). I have a lot of kids interested in that but we don't have a facility.
MFF: When you retire (someday), what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you?
Chandler: That I was a caring individual. That would be enough.
MFF: If you hadn't chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?
Chandler: If I didn't have to make money, I would just volunteer. I went to Russia and Peru to help build orphanages on mission trips and liked that. For me, ministry is about helping people.
MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when…."
Chandler: "...I get to shake kids' hands as they walk across the stage at graduation and they tell me what they want to do with the rest of their life." Graduation is my favorite part of the year.
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