Elba science teacher inspires students to 'get by or get better'
Phillip Smith, a science teacher at Elba High School, spent most of his summer painting his new classroom. Inspirational quotes now line the walls, and his adjacent lab is covered with scientific equations and theories.
But before he mentioned any of his own work in this classroom, Smith brought out a small painted rock. It's smooth stone, and it fits easily into the palm of his hand. On one side, there is a little tree painted in front of a field of tiny stars. Smith said he had his students paint rocks near the end of the year last year, and that the instructions were simple.
"I just got them to paint a rock," he said. "That's the only instructions I gave them."
Some of the rocks are monochromatic; some just have names or slogans on them. Yet a few of them have been painted by students with meticulous brush-work. They are the result of focus, talent, and obvious skill.
According to Smith, the rock with the tree was painted by a student who struggled occasionally in his classroom. She had to be reminded to pay attention in class. And Smith said this taught him something.
"They've all got talents," he said. "It doesn't have to be science."
For a long time, Smith, 48, didn't even use his talent for science. His first jobs out of college were in business management, specifically, restaurant management. Smith said he worked in the restaurant business for 15 years and didn't enjoy much of it. He was irritated by employees who would show up late, receive a warning, be late again and be confused as to why they were fired.
"Eventually my wife got tired of me coming home mad every day," Smith said. "She was like, 'Why don't you just go back to school and be a teacher like you wanted to a long time ago?'"
So, he went back to school. After graduating he began teaching in the Ozark City school system. A few years later, Smith decided to take a job offer at Elba High School because it was closer to where he lives. He was hired as a science teacher for seventh through ninth grades and as a football and basketball coach.
This coming school year will be Smith's ninth year teaching, and his sixth year at Elba. This year he has also decided to resign from his coaching positions.
"Coaching is, to me, another way to reach kids, but my passion, and everything is in the classroom," he said.
Judging by the work Smith has done to his physical classroom, that statement could almost be taken literally. By applying for and receiving grants, Smith has been able to buy paint, furniture and lab supplies for the upcoming year. Last year, he covered the walls of his lab with formulas, equations and a massive periodic table.
"I wanted stuff on the wall so that, if [the students] were just standing there looking around at stuff on the wall, they were taking something in that was science," Smith said.
Smith said that when he was considering this job in Elba, the lab was a really important factor for him. He wanted to be able to give his students a place to do hands-on experiments and have fun with the material they were studying.
"It almost worked too good because they were so excited every time we went to lab that it's hard for them to get the lesson," he said. To help future students work through this, Smith has started partnering with the science teachers at the elementary school to bring the younger students to the lab once a month. Then, by the time the students take Smith's class in the seventh grade, they already know what to do.
And that's just the lab.
The other half of Smith's science center is his classroom. Formerly the football team's film room, Smith moved into the room connected to his lab this year. Now, fish tanks, inspirational messages, a few lava lamps and some bean bag chairs compliment the traditional desks and white board. According to Smith, the whole idea for the room is that it can change a class's dynamic.
"This classroom is supposed to be lot about positive motivation," he said. "A lot of times in class, somebody's acting a fool or something, you get on to them, but the ones who are really doing what they are supposed to, you don't really say a whole lot to them because they're doing what they're supposed to."
The couches and bean bag chairs in the back of the room are flexible seating and are intended to be a reward for students who have at least a B in the class.
"It's supposed to be a positive reinforcement whereas we usually just use the negative. Smith said. "We'll see how that works out."
The largest message that Smith painted on the wall is what he calls his philosophy. It reads: "Get by or get better." Smith said this is something he goes over with his students on day one.
"Every day, when you open your eyes, you have a decision to make," he said. "You can either get by or get better; that's it. I'm not talking about school. It could be anything. It could be personal life. It could be sports, academics, whatever. At the end of the day, when you go to bed, if you didn't get better at something, you just got by."
Right now, Smith is getting better at a lot of things.
On top of his job as a teacher, Smith also runs marathons and is currently training for a triathlon. Both of his daughters got married last year, and he will soon be a grandfather.
"I try to give [my students] an example," he said. "I'm 48 years old. Within the past year, I've run like three marathons. I run spartan races, and it hurts the next day."
Not only that, Smith would also like to update the outdoor classroom already at the high school. He said installing solar panels, wind turbines and a small greenhouse would give the students more opportunities to learn in a hands-on environment.
Ultimately, Smith said he is always looking for more ways to engage and excite his students.
"My real big pitch to them is to hang on because there's going to be something that you like," he said. " It's not all going to be figuring the distance and the speed and all that physics stuff, and it's not all the periodic table. But it is fun stuff. Sometimes it's just painting a rock."
By Jack West
Last Updated: July 25, 2019