Photography by Jessica Turner

One of Aaronda Smith’s students was pulled out of class for not wearing their uniform. Rather than chastising the student, Smith asked why.

As it turns out, the eighth-grader didn’t have one. Smith spent her lunch break at the store, buying her an outfit so that she’d be in uniform for the rest of the day. 

When the teenager came out of the classroom and turned to look at her teacher, she beamed from ear-to-ear.

“She smiled and said, ‘I look so pretty,’” Smith says. “She told me, ‘No one has ever done anything like this for me ever,’ and she was just crying.”

More than 20% of the school’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, and many have home situations that make focusing on schoolwork difficult, Smith says. That makes moments like these even more important.

“To be honest, I gave my life to God, and that’s what saved my life. But for people who don’t have that, having a teacher who does can help them navigate the world.” 

Smith was awarded Dallas ISD’s Teacher of the Year in the Choice/Magnet category this year. An eighth-grade teacher at George Bannerman Dealey Montessori and Vanguard Academy, she’s worked at DISD for 16 years, instructing middle- and high-schoolers in reading, debate, success strategies, literary genres and creative writing.

As a young girl, Smith never dreamed of being an educator. She struggled with mental health and self-image as a teenager and often found herself in the nurse’s office talking about her struggles with suicidal ideation. 

My emotions just kind of got the best of me,” Smith says. “Then her (the nurse) husband preached a message that literally was our conversation … She said that you can’t control your destiny.”

Smith stayed in close contact with the nurse as she got older but decided against education when she got to college because of the demand of the job and low salary. 

“My teachers sacrificed so much for me,” she says. “I felt like they deserved the world. But I thought if I became a teacher, I couldn’t give them (the students) that.”

Smith started out at the University of Texas at Arlington as a psychology major but ended up having to switch to education to graduate. It was then that she looked over her life and realized that education provided a platform to produce meaningful people. 

“To be honest, I gave my life to God, and that’s what saved my life,” she says. “But for people who don’t have that, having a teacher who does can help them navigate the world.”

Though rewarding, Smith says being a teacher takes a toll. At times, she was sure this year was her last, especially after seeing her scores were lower than usual. 

“This is why the Teacher of the Year thing is so significant to me, because it is a testament that the system does not determine your ability as a teacher,” she says.

Smith sees this distinction as a way for other teachers to relate to her more and realize that scores aren’t conducive to teaching ability.

“You come from so many hard trials and tribulations, and you find your way to a place like this. It’s not a pedestal to me,” Smith says. “But while I’m here, I want to do everything that I can to show my gratitude for the recognition, for the accolades, for the love, for the cheers. I’m extremely honored to be the Teacher of the Year.”