CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Katie Smith had always thought about teaching, but she wanted a way to try it out “without committing to it as a career forever.”
Teach for America, the nonprofit that puts top university graduates in the nation’s most under-resourced public schools, was the perfect opportunity.
Smith ended up teaching ninth-grade English for three years at Southeast Halifax High School, a rural eastern North Carolina school with a student body that is 98 percent African American.
Even for someone who had gone to public schools her entire life, the experience was sobering.
“I had no real concept that a public school could be as needy or as lacking in resources as the school where I taught,” Smith says.
Highly-qualified teachers were one of the more glaring shortages, a fact Smith attributes to the school’s rural location and inability to offer competitive salaries.
“I was considered highly qualified after passing one test and taking two courses,” she says. “I didn’t really feel highly qualified.”
Despite the difficulties, the warm greeting she received from her former students at their recent graduation makes Smith think she must have made some impression.
“If nothing else, they were exposed to a white girl from Illinois and it gave them the opportunity to know someone on an individual basis,” she says. “We had quite a few open and earnest conversations about race.”
This Illinois native has been influenced by several North Carolina institutions since relocating in 2003.
The Raleigh-based A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal, was one of the sponsors of her time with Teach for America.
And a masters degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill led her to the nonprofit Center for Child and Family Health in Durham, where she interned during her studies and now works full-time on the N.C. Child Response Initiative, a partnership with local police to provide support to children and families who have witnessed a violent crime.
“Not only do we have her in North Carolina to stay, we have her in an area that’s so difficult and so needed,” says Barbara Goodmon, who serves as president and executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, and maintains a relationship with Smith, whose Teach for America position the foundation sponsored.
“She’s a very, very gifted young woman,” Goodmon says. “She could have gone to Harvard, Yale or wherever she wanted to go, but she stayed.”
For Smith, the turn to social work was in many ways a natural one. She had studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but found the social justice element of social work alluring.
“I felt like I did a lot of social work while teaching,” Smith says. “It’s very hard to expect your students to learn when they have so much going on out of school, and people aren’t addressing those things. It’s pretty naïve to expect them to leave their baggage at the door and come and learn grammar.”
Smith feels her dual perspective as teacher and social worker has given her a more complete picture of the obstacles facing disadvantaged youth.
“It’s kind of neat to have both angles,” she says.