The Talon

Michael Smith

For 17 years, English teacher Michael Smith has sought to always place his students as his highest priority. The Talon sat down with Mr. Smith as he shared his journey of becoming a teacher, and his hopes of creating an environment that encourages students to work to the best of their ability.

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Michael Smith

Sean Scott

Sean Scott

Sean Scott

Sean Scott

Noah Tesfaye, Staff Writer

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The summer following his graduation from UCLA in June of 2001, English teacher Michael Smith got a bizarre phone call.

“I got a call early in the morning and it said ‘There’s a teaching job up here [at Los Altos]. You may want to take a look into it,’ and the person hung up the phone,” Smith said. “And I was like ‘Wha, what the hell? Was it a dream? Or was it real?’”

Just a few minutes later, his mom gave him a call saying she too got a phone call about a job opportunity at Los Altos. His suspicions about whether the call was a dream or reality were confirmed the next morning, when he woke up and found a job opening in the English department. He called in for an interview from LA, and a few weeks later, Smith walked into Los Altos, his former high school, as a teacher.

For the past seventeen years, Smith has made it his mission to become the best teacher for his students. When it comes to education, he follows three keys to teaching: listening, reaching out and expressing himself transparently to his students and always being available.

“I think listening is underrated,” Smith said. “The other thing, I mean it’s really hearing a student’s story and just acknowledging that.”

Smith wants his students to feel free to express themselves through their own experiences. By striving to empathize with his students, he aims to better understand them as humans. Along with his effort to get to know his students better, he makes sure to share his own experiences in hopes of forging genuine connections.

I have parents who hoped that getting an education would change the plight of this young black man that they’re raising, and it did. — English teacher Michael Smith”

— English teacher Michael Smith

“I would say I appreciated coming in as a freshman that he didn’t treat us like toddlers. He treated us like the age we were and expected that level of maturity,” senior Tanya Matthew said.

“To be in a room with my colleagues and for them to look at me perplexed because some student who I don’t know is praising my name because I took the time to read a paper, or do off like that…” Smith said. “They look at me like ‘Oh. Maybe this dude is working kind of, sort of, maybe, mmm.’ Yeah. I’m always grinding, always, so [students] see it man.”

Almost three decades after traveling with his family from Virginia to New York in the back of a UHAUL, Smith reflects on the value of the “hustle mentality” his parents instilled upon him and how it’s responsible for where he is today.

“I have parents who hoped that getting an education would change the plight of this young black man that they’re raising, and it did,” Smith said. “I’m the only person in my family, of the siblings, to go to college. I’m the only one to graduate. I’m the only one who owns a house. I’m the only one not in absurd debt.”

By sharing his vulnerabilities and personal experiences, Smith hopes to get students to trust him by knowing him as a human, not just as a teacher. Furthermore, he is determined to be the best teacher for his students, and one way that occurs is by granting them a place where they feel comfortable.

One of the affirmations that has stuck with Smith the most as a teacher was a comment that was made by a student just a few weeks ago.

“‘I don’t feel like I’m in a pressure cooker when with your class,’” Smith said, paraphrasing her comment. “‘You tell us, you’re very clear about what you want done. You give us plenty of time to work on it, and you’re willing to help us. I don’t think we can ask much more of you.’ That’s the kind of supportive teacher that I hope to be and I think I am, but until you confirm that with the people around you, you don’t really know.”

One of the more difficult tasks as an English teacher is helping reduce the stigma of what an English class is stereotyped to be: all about writing papers and reading books that aren’t relevant.

I’ve been stereotyped equally here as I have anywhere else, and ridiculed, chastised, the whole nine. But Los Altos has done a great deal of good for me and I love working in the environment. So it’s good to be back.”

— English teacher Michael Smith

When tackling this issue, Smith takes a different approach to getting students engaged. Rather than merely getting his students to just work, he actively attempts to always get his students engaged in class to sincerely care about English.

“But I think the authenticity behind that is me showing them how it’s applicable in their real lives,” Smith said. “If it’s not, then I really truthfully feel like I’m wasting a significant chunk of my students’ lives.”

Whether it’s in the classroom, or outside, Smith strives to be a student’s first teacher. Through his support of students both inside and outside the classroom, he hopes to ensure that all his students can gain a diverse learning experience where they can trust and respect both him as a teacher and as a person.

“I’ve been stereotyped equally here as I have anywhere else, and ridiculed, chastised, the whole nine,” Smith said. “But Los Altos has done a great deal of good for me and I love working in the environment. If I didn’t, I would be more cautious about what I’m saying, but I love working here. So it’s good to be back [after graduating]. Seventeen years. Goodness gracious. That’s a long time.”

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Michael Smith