Laurie Smith, the 2021 National Rural Teacher of the  Year, smiles for the camera

Photo credit: Jenny Reichman Photography

Laurie Smith, the 2021 National Rural Teacher of the Year, believes in the power of relationship-building with each student. “To me, that’s 90 percent of the battle,” says the fourth-grade teacher at Nebraska’s Sumner-Eddyville-Miller (SEM) Schools. Just over 200 students attend the one-building, preK-12 consolidated school district located near the center of the state.

Smith, a teacher for 26 years, knows her community well. She grew up in Sumner and graduated from SEM, returning after teaching in other rural districts. She says the death of a student in one of those districts changed her as a teacher.

The National Rural Education Association award honors exemplary dedication to education in rural schools. For Smith, that means sharing her recognition with her colleagues: “This is about the people I work with. This award is SEM,” she tells ASBJ’s Michelle Healy. 

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

How has your school changed since you graduated in 1992?

The building is a lot different. We completed an addition about two or three years ago, but we’re still all in the same building. We have a full-day, five-day-a-week preschool now, and we’re very progressive with technology—one-to-one, pre-K through 12, Apple TVs in all classrooms. The community feel is something that has stayed the same. The school is still the hub.

How did the loss of a first-grade student several years ago impact your teaching?

She was 6 and liked to tell me about her kitty cats all the time. At the end of one day, I remember her wanting to tell me a story and me saying, “In a few minutes. Let me finish what I’m doing first.” And I never went back to hear her stories. Ten minutes after her car pulled off, she was in a fatal accident on the interstate. Today, Mrs. Smith hears all stories. We have five-to-10 minute talks every day—Today’s Talk—that help build our relationship. Today’s was about favorite cake flavors. I now know that most of my kiddos’ favorite is chocolate; it’s carrot for one little girl. They know my favorite is chocolate, too. They know my room is a safe place for them and how incredibly important they are to me. They don’t leave my room, ever, without me going back and hearing every story they want to tell me.

What’s a key challenge facing rural education?

Mobility is a big thing. We have kids who come in, are here for maybe a month, and move on. They can come in with a hard shell because the mobility is so constant. I had a kiddo who refused to crack. Everything I did was bad. He didn’t want anything to do with me. I said to him repeatedly, “I’m going to be here every day for you. I’m going to do my best for you.” Slowly, he turned around. He moved on to the next grade and was doing well with the teacher. Then he moved again. You hope that you plant that seed in them of how important they are and that belief that they can do it, no matter where they go.

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