By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
APRIL 6, 2017 – Brian Smith, who is an EC (Exceptional Children) teacher assistant at Southeast Middle School, has been named the 2017-18 Classified Employee of the Year.
Smith was chosen from 78 people nominated for the award.
“He stood out because of his passion for not only the EC children he works with but the entire student body at Southeast,” said Ken Leak, the chair of the Classified Advisory Council. “He loves giving to the children.”
This morning, Leak, Superintendent Beverly Emory and others hopped on an activity bus and headed to Southeast to surprise Smith. When giving him the certificate naming him the winner, Emory said. “If you don’t know it, they can’t run this place without you.”
Emory added that she knows that, for Smith, it is much more than a job.
In accepting the honor, Smith made the point that he is just one of many people serving students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. Everyone is a piece of the puzzle, he said. “I’m very proud to be one of the pieces.”
At a reception, colleagues talked about what makes him special.
“The way he works with kids is amazing,” said Paula Turner, who is a counselor at Southeast. “He is the most positive person with whom I have ever worked.”
After Allison Barnes, who is also a counselor at Southeast, also described him as the most positive person with whom she has ever worked, she went on to say that he is also the most dependable person she has ever worked with. If he says he is going to do something, you don’t have to give it another thought because you know it will get done.
“He is so willing – if there is anything he can do to help,” Barnes said.
Ray Solomon, who teaches eight-grade social studies and language arts, said that Smith is one of the nicest, most-genuine people you will ever meet. Smith’s consistently positive attitude, Solomon said, makes coming to work a pleasure.”
Several people made the point that Smith is positive every single day.
“Mr. Smith is the same Monday through Friday – energetic, positive, always an upbeat person,” said assistant principal Aaron Bailey. “He is a joy to work with.”
“He has always got a smile on his face,” said testing coordinator Angela Phelps. “I think that is contagious with the kids.”
Even on days with disturbing news, said Principal Stephanie Gentry, he finds a way to smile.
Smith and his wife, Deborah Wallace-Smith, an eighth-grade teacher at Southeast, have known Gentry since they all worked at Walkertown Middle.
“We followed Stephanie Gentry here,” she said. “I have never met another administrator like her. Everything you want in a leader, she is that leader.”
Wallace-Smith joined Gentry at Southeast five years ago.
When a position for an EC teacher assistant opened up at Southeast a couple of years ago, Gentry said, “He was my first thought…He was always so good with kids.”
For his first 13 years with the school system, Smith was the study skills reading teacher at Walkertown Middle. When Walkertown High School opened in the new building that now houses both the middle and high school, he took a position there as the coordinator for in-school suspension and the alternative learning center.
There, the list of responsibilities he took on extended well beyond his official job titles. In the mornings and afternoons, he worked with the buses. In between, he had lunch duty. He booked buses for field trips. He helped with the school’s United Way campaign.
He also was the chair of the United Way campaign at Southeast. He has taken on additional responsibilities at Southeast as well. Seeing that some students never participated in such after-school activities as sports, he established an after-school club that, while focusing on chess, also offered students the opportunity to play other games as well.
Thanks to a grant from the Kernersville Chamber of Commerce, he was able to buy nice chess boards and pieces.
He coaches Special Olympics and drives the buses when students go to events off-campus. He coaches soccer and helps with volleyball and basketball.
On a recent student trip to Washington, he took responsibility for keeping track of and dispensing students’ medications.
Whatever needs doing, he is willing to help, Gentry said. “People fight over him when it comes to scheduling time.”
Smith’s wife estimates that he spends 60 hours a week on school-related activities. That’s fine with her, she said, because he loves what he does.
On his own time, Smith enjoys reading books by such authors as Clive Cussler and Vince Flynn. He enjoys rereading books and may go back and read in order a series that he read out of order the first time.
Smith did not head directly into the world of education.
He grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Through high school and for the first two years of college, he followed a path that would have led to becoming a missionary. After he decided that wasn’t the path for him, he transferred to Stony Brook University, which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY). Before finishing a degree, he embarked on a career in restaurant management. That career brought him to North Carolina as part of the owner/management team opening Checkers Drive-In restaurants in this area.
He met Wallace-Smith when his company became a business partner with Walkertown Middle. They hit it off right away.
“We started dating a month after I met him and married five months after that,” she said. “I knew I had a good thing.”
He is always positive and always excited about life, she said. “He is a great husband. He treats me like a queen. He is always super positive. He loves children and they love him back.”
She also appreciates his enthusiasm. Last night, her husband and others returned from accompanying students on a three-day trip to Washington. He got home about 10:30 p.m. and spent the next 1½ hours telling her about all of the exciting things that had happened, she said.
Smith also feels as if he got a good deal when it came to finding a spouse.
“I have a perfect wife,” he said.
A couple of things happened that made Smith decide it was time to leave the world of business and join the world of education.
One, his brother Mike and his wife were working hard toward retirement when they learned that she had ovarian cancer. After she died, Smith said, his brother turned to him and said, “Do not wait. Try to live every day.”
The second thing came in the wake of Wallace-Smith being struck by a car. After she left the hospital, she needed physical therapy. So he would take two hours out of his work day to drive her to and from physical therapy. Even though he was still putting in perhaps 80 hours a week, a business partner who was unhappy about him leaving for a while in the afternoons, told him he needed to make a choice.
So he did. He sold his interest in the business. He makes significantly less money than he once did but enjoys his work life significantly more. These years have been the most rewarding of his life, he said.
“Honest to God, I am truly joyful,” he said. “I really feel like I am helping children.”
Asked what makes him special, Southeast students Lynn Davis, William Schultze and Jose Lopez-King all said the same thing.
“Everything,” they said one after the other.
Smith, 59, was also a finalist for Classified Employee of the Year in 2013. At the time, he told a story about a young woman he had helped when she was in the seventh grade coming to see him. She had grown up to marry and have a child and to become an assistant manager in a restaurant, and she was there to thank him. “You made me believe that I could do anything,” she told him.
“All right,” Smith said to himself. “That’s why I do this.”
Smith enjoys making up stories as a way to play with students.
“I do like to have fun. I like to make people laugh.”
For instance, while teacher John Watson was out of the classroom one day, Smith said to students, “You can’t tell anybody but, before he was a teacher, he was a professional wrestler.”
Over time, Smith added such fabrications as Watson being a skater in the Olympics and an early participant on the television show American Ninja Warrior.
Along the way, he will let his colleagues know what yarns he is spinning about them to the students. He has told one or two yarns about himself.
“I was on Dancing with the Stars that first season,” he said.
In one story he told students, he shot skeet in the Olympics.
Although Smith is happiest in his work now, he sees all that came before as an essential part of his path in life. In business, he learned about service and how to deal with people and how to resolve problems.
“All of these things led to me being a really good people person,” he said. “I know I have a good rapport with people.”
“I feel very blessed. When I look back, I have had a really good life. Everything that has happened has led me to here.”