Meet Kandy Smitha, Teacher of the Year finalist

Meet Kandy Smitha, winner of ACTE’s Region III Teacher of the Year award. Smitha’s interview appears as part of a spotlight series on our 2021 national award winners and finalists. This award recognizes career and technical education (CTE) teachers at the middle/secondary school level who demonstrate innovation in the classroom, commitment to their students and dedication to the improvement of CTE in their institutions and communities.

What is your job title and what do you do?

I am the instructor for Veterinary Careers I & II, Advanced Life Science: Animals and Animal Science. I teach students anatomy, medical terminology and skills to become veterinary assistants. Students also earn a high school science credit in Advanced Life Science: Animal and dual credit with Ivy Tech Community College in Advanced Life Science: Animals and Animal Science.  I also instruct second year students in more advanced skills, medical terminology, introduction to pharmacology and animal nursing.

What was your education experience like in general? What did you study?

I was trained on the job as a veterinary technician and worked in the field for 12 years. Eventually, I went back to school to earn my nursing degree in human medicine and worked as a nurse until 1997. After I started the veterinary assisting program at J. Everett Light Career Center in 2001, I took classes with Purdue University in their registered vet tech program. I also have taken graduate classes in education at Purdue.

Please discuss the role of teaching in your life. Who or what inspired you to teach CTE?

I have always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I set up a classroom in our basement and taught my stuffed animals what I learned in school. I also had a great love for animals. As I grew older, I was discouraged from being a teacher as they didn’t make much money.

I turned to my love for animals as a career path. I wanted to become a veterinarian but was discouraged from doing that as well. My father told me I had a tender heart and would be heartbroken every time an animal was hurt or died, but I found my way to animal medicine just the same. After I graduated from high school, I got a job with a veterinarian.

When my pathway took me to human nursing, my goal was to get my master’s degree and teach nursing. But life got in the way of that as well. So, when I heard about the chance to teach high school students to be nursing assistants, with a bit of prayer, I jumped. That was 24 years ago. I have never looked back and never regretted the leap. Teaching is my first passion and veterinary medicine my second. How blessed I am to be able to do both. Helping these students to find their path and encouraging them when people say they shouldn’t or can’t is the best career I could have ever asked for.

How has COVID-19 affected CTE program activities in your school, and how has it affected the wellbeing of your professional learning community at large?

How hasn’t it affected programs and activities?! We have all had to learn how to teach using technology that wasn’t a part of what we usually do. Most of us focus on the hands-on activities, but we had to find a way to do that without students in our labs and classrooms. I have felt like a first-year teacher all over again. And so have most of my colleagues.

We have been creative and used technology in any way we could to help students learn the skills they needed. Also, the main focus is getting students to work together as a team in a clinic setting. I have never allowed cell phones in the classroom. That rule has definitely gone out the window as we have used technology to social distance and work from home.

Students are becoming even more isolated from each other due to technology. Everyone is stressed. So, it has been challenging to find a way to connect with students even though we are not in the same room.

Several of my co-workers retired at semester break or are retiring at the end of the year. Others of us have learned to embrace the new way of doing things. And we celebrate our “wins” when we figure out how to make it work.

In what innovative ways have you engaged students to remain connected with their communities — and have fun — while social distancing?

Career and technical student organization activities continued, using break out rooms and emails to communicate and elect officers. We conducted touchless fundraisers (though not as well as before) and organized community service collection efforts for pet toys and blankets. We also played some Kahoot games to celebrate Valentine’s Day and CTE Month.

As an ACTE award winner, you are recognized for your efforts to sustain high-quality CTE programs for all students. What advice would you offer a new teacher?

Don’t be afraid to re-invent the wheel. The thing I love about teaching is if I try something one year and it doesn’t work well, then I can drop it and try something new. It isn’t in every job you can do that. Not every job gives you that kind of creative control.

Also, don’t be afraid of relationships with those you work with, those who teach CTE at large and your students. You need to know where to draw the line but show them you care about their lives, dreams, fears and frustrations. You may be the only one who believes in them.

And don’t ever stop learning. It will keep your own curiosity alive and your childlike wonder at what we do. People will see and hear the passion in your voice for what you do and inspire them to try to aim higher as well.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I am grateful for the recognition that I received as a finalist for Teacher of the Year. None of us feel we deserve it. We are just doing our jobs and loving it. Thank you again for the opportunity to share my views.

Learn more about ACTE’s 2021 national award winners.