Smoller glad she chose teaching over PR
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
The woman who recently was named the past year’s most outstanding teacher in the Brentwood School District came close to not being a teacher.
Back in the 1980s, Kellie Smoller studied communications in college, with an emphasis in public relations. But by the time she graduated, she hated to admit what her heart was telling her.
“I realized I didn’t actually want to do public relations,” she said.
It was soul-searching time.
“I reflected on what I really wanted to do,” Smoller said. “I had from the earliest days of elementary school wanted to be a teacher. I always loved school. I loved the environment, the mentoring from great teachers. So I went back and got my teaching certification.”
As the ancient knight told Indiana Jones, “You have chosen … wisely.”
Indeed, now in her 12th year teaching English and journalism at Brentwood High School, she couldn’t be happier about that change of heart. Last month she received an Emerson Excellence In Teaching Award. The St. Louis company bestows it annually on one teacher from each St. Louis area school district and college who is chosen by his or her administrators.
Smoller and about 100 others from Missouri and Illinois will receive their awards at a reception at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Nov. 22.
“She is a ‘master teacher’ as evidenced by student assessment data,” BHS Principal Ed Johnson wrote in a press release. “For the past two years, more than 90 percent of her students scored proficient or advanced on the English II End Of Course Exam. In 2015, 87.5 percent of her super subgroup and 100 percent of her students with IEPs scored proficient or advanced as well.”
An IEP is an individual education plan, for students with disabilities.
Smoller was quick to acknowledge that the award was partly based on her students’ test scores. When she found out she had been congratulated on the sign in front of the school, she walked her English III students outside with her to pose for a photo.
“I told them it was their performance last year that was noted in the application Dr. Johnson wrote,” she said.
Johnson also called Smoller “a fearless advocate for individuals in need of social, emotional and academic support and she goes above and beyond to establish strong relationships with students.” He pointed out that she eats lunch with students in the cafeteria every day, sponsors the school’s book club and “models appreciation of diversity and inclusion through leadership of BHS’s Gay Straight Alliance group.”
BHS math teacher Kelly Javier added, “Kellie Smoller is a champion for inclusion and the diversity of all learners, a voice for those who do not yet know how to speak for themselves and a rock for anyone who needs support. Our school is so lucky to reap the benefits of her work and would not be the same without her grace, kindness and generosity.”
‘All about relationships’
Smoller is used to giving attention, not getting it. As the staff’s yearbook sponsor she attends dozens of after-school events, sometimes as a photographer. But that’s not the only reason she’s there.
“I feel that seeing kids succeed, challenging themselves outside of the classroom, really helps me reach them in the classroom,” she said. “To see a kid give it all on the wrestling mat, or performing on stage in a theater production … If they know we’re there supporting them in all aspects of their lives, it helps the relationship and this job is all about relationships.”
At that point Smoller’s eyes started to tear up a bit, but her voice remained steady:
“Early in your teaching career you’re going to focus on mastering your curriculum, mastering the classroom management strategies. But then eventually you get to master the key, which is relationships. I get emotional about it. Especially when you see them as sixth graders come into the middle school, then see them graduate and go out in the world and come back to visit to see how they’re thriving. To give them that support is really exciting.”
A number of her former students have gone on to study journalism or a related field, including Kaitlin Fitzgerald (class of 2005), Madeline O’Leary (2010), Jack Suntrup (2011), Olivia Snare (2012), and Josh McGehee and Meredith McGrath (2013).
Smoller was the editor of her high school newspaper in Houston. She enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas after attending summer journalism camps there. She graduated in 1987 then earned a teaching certification from Sam Houston State.
After teaching in Fort Worth for four years, she married Aaron Smoller, a captain in the Air Force. They moved to South Dakota in 1993 where she earned a master’s degree in education. They moved to Sedalia in 1996 and to St. Louis in 1998 before settling in Brentwood a year later.
When their son Alex was in kindergarten she started working part time for the Francis Howell School District. A year later, in 2004, she was thrilled to find an opening for a full-time communication arts teacher at Brentwood High School, one block from her home on St. Clair Avenue.
“I’m so lucky this job came open in my back yard,” she said, pointing through her classroom windows and over the football field to the back of her house. “I get to walk to work and be part of the community, and watch my son’s friends grow up and to teach them. They’re seniors now.”
Smoller is big on collaboration with other teachers. In teaching literature she wants students to understand the historical context of the works so she coordinates closely with history teacher Roy Hughes.
“While he’s doing Greek culture we’re reading Greek myths,” she said. “Then when they study the middle ages we’ll be reading the Canterbury Tales. They get it from both angles. I like to bring in the history behind the stories. I just think it makes the literature more interesting.”
She talks of fellow English teachers Darla Cobb and Robyn Haug as if the three are joined at the hip. She thought of them first when she learned she’d won the award.
“It’s great to be acknowledged but it’s also a responsibility I feel on behalf of everyone I work with,” Smoller said. “I work with such stellar people. My English language arts team with Mrs. Cobb and Mrs. Haug — we work so well together, we do everything together.”
‘I really love them’
Years from now Kellie Smoller will dust off the 2016 BHS yearbook and open it. She’ll see her son Alex’s senior portrait, see him in the photo of the soccer team, which recently completed a memorable season. She’ll remember her award. She’ll think of all the work it took to oversee so many yearbooks. But seeing the familiar faces looking back at her, smiling, she’ll probably smile too. She’ll remember what a great year it was.
“The students are wonderful,” she said. “I love them, I really love them. I wouldn’t trade this for any other job.”
Emerson Excellence In Teaching Award winners from Brentwood School District
2015-16: Kellie Smoller, BHS
2014-15: Steve Ryan, BMS
2013-14: Ann Justice, Mark Twain
2013-14: Shannon Koster*, BHS
2012-13: Lori Rejent, McGrath
2011-12: Kelly Javier, BHS
2010-11: Mike Imergoot, BMS
2009-10: Kim Staggs, Mark Twain
2008-09: Amy Sullentrup, McGrath
2007-08: Reema Rahaman, BMS
2006-07: Sandy Wacker, Mark Twain
2005-06: Rich Niemann, BHS
2004-05: Lisa Hastings, McGrath
*Koster, a special education teacher, was chosen by the Special School District of St. Louis County.