Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Claire Smullen (DC '19)

November 22, 2019

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Art teacher Claire Smullen (DC ’19) has taught students from first grade to 12th, but she loves middle school, a time when “students are trying to figure out how they fit into the world.” She won her Milken Award at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C. on October 29, 2019.


Milken Family Foundation: What made you decide to teach?

Claire Smullen: My father was an amazing educator at Derry Area High School in Derry, Pennsylvania, where I graduated in 2004. As a senior I was in my father’s history class and saw firsthand how many students’ lives he touched. He has been retired for many years now, but he still runs into students who greet him with such warmth and love. I grew up with an example of the powerful ability that teachers have to touch the lives of their students.

I’ve always loved art, but as I started my career in graphic design right out of college, I realized just how much I longed to make meaningful connections with students and develop the relationships that I saw my father foster as a teacher. It was soon after moving to D.C. that I shifted careers and began teaching.

MFF: What memories stand out from your first year in the classroom?

Claire: My first year was very challenging. I taught in a joint middle/high school that was slated for closure. I was a member of a cohort hired to try to turn the school around. The middle school was especially challenging. I remember one class where I had tried every tool in my toolbox—although admittedly at the time I didn’t have many—to engage the students and get us back on task, but I felt like I was failing in every regard. I remember thinking “only 10 more minutes” and standing at the front of the room hoping no one would get into too much trouble in that time. But even though I felt like there was more I should be doing, at the end of that year I had a student tell me that I was their favorite teacher. I thought, “Really?”

I tell any first-year teacher that their only goal is keeping their head above water. They’re always doing better than they think they are. It’s funny, because after teaching in that middle school, I told myself I would never teach middle school again. Now, almost six years later, I’m a middle school teacher and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

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MFF: What do you like about teaching middle school students?

Claire: I’ve been lucky to have taught art from first to 12th grade. What I love most about middle school is that this is a time when students are trying to figure out how they fit into the world. They are experimenting with what they are interested in, what their core values are and what type of person they want to be. Being a part of such a critical time in a child’s life is a powerful thing.

It is my hope that I am always a positive example to my students of trying to live your life in a way that exemplifies kindness and responsibility. Our school has a motto: “At Stuart Hobson we expect mistakes, and we fix mistakes.” I know my students and I will misstep in the choices we make at times, but how we persevere after mistakes is a powerful lesson to guide students through. Helping my students navigate a time of their lives that can feel full of mistakes is the most rewarding aspect of teaching middle school.

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MFF: Tell us about your before-school set design class. How did your collaboration with the drama and music departments lead to this effort?

Claire: My “zero period” class meets to plan and build sets and props for our drama productions. I have the great pleasure of working with Ms. Pergerson and Ms. Kensey, who direct and choreograph our shows. These two teachers have such vision for our students. They inspire me daily to keep expectations high and trust in our students to do the work. I think students enjoy this class because it is nearly completely student-led. I help with a rough plan for things, but students problem-solve and work together to build their visions.

MFF: How do your special needs students benefit from making art?

Claire: My special needs class is one of my favorite times of the day. These students come with a great amount of love and joy, and interacting with them is a pleasure. I think these students benefit from making art because it provides many of them another method to communicate. It also allows them to access a different way of thinking and interacting with school materials.

MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Claire: I was over-the-moon excited and surprised when I was notified. I think many teachers love what they do, but the immense amount of time and energy (both emotional and physical) is often unseen by colleagues and students. Anytime there is a hint that a teacher is being recognized, there is a moment when you think, “You know? Maybe it’s me.” But I don’t think often that a teacher is expecting to hear their name called.

I honestly do not remember much of that day, I was so overwhelmed. I don’t think I have ever been that surprised in my life!

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MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?

Claire: Our students have been great. It’s so nice to hear so many “Congratulations!” in the halls outside my classroom. An eighth grader suggested I purchase new “killer” shoes for the graduating class of SHMS.

MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?

Claire: My elementary art teacher, Mrs. Bash, stands out as one of my all-time favorite teachers. In the first grade, she kept me after class to give me an entry to an art contest she encouraged me to participate in. I remember feeling so special that she thought of me. That moment is one that has always stuck with me. I think every child wants to feel special. As a teacher, if you can make every child realize that they are seen and really matter, you are doing that child a great service.

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MFF: How do you define success?

Claire: Success is feeling like you have accomplished a task and knowing that you have persevered through challenges. If you have not been challenged, have you actually succeeded?

MFF: What do you want your students to take with them from their time with you?

Claire: Above everything else, I hope my students remember my class as one that was full of kindness, positivity and respect. I know many of my students face (or will face) challenges in their lives. I hope I’m able to show them that even when things are difficult, how you respond to those difficulties is the true mark of a person. I also hope they remember that their opinion matters, and that their unique perspective on the world is a valuable thing.

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