By JB Clark
GUNTOWN – Julia Smith spent the past 20 years teaching sixth-graders and police officers alike.
Her dedication to both sets of students earned her this year’s National D.A.R.E. Educator of the Year.
Smith, a recently retired classroom teacher at Guntown Middle School, teaches law enforcement officers in the D.A.R.E. program how to work with students in a classroom setting.
“I was fascinated by the program when it was taught the first time in my classroom,” Smith said of her exposure to the program in 1994. “I was amazed at the relationship that develops between a D.A.R.E. officer and a student. Students seem to reach out to D.A.R.E. officers when they don’t like anybody else.”
After the program came to her classroom, Smith was asked by Lt. Sheri Hall, D.A.R.E. state coordinator, to sit on a panel for officers to ask questions about the classroom environment.
“That’s not their world,” Smith said. “They’re totally at home on the street but a lot of them freak out in a classroom full of kids.”
After the panel, Smith told Hall she wanted to do something more for the officers to make their classroom experience less stressful. That’s when Hall asked Smith to serve as the state’s D.A.R.E. educator, a position that would require her to teach law enforcement officers about classroom management, learning techniques, age group characteristics, lesson planning and any number of other classroom strategies during the D.A.R.E. officer training programs.
“When a police officer is on the street, they ask yes and no questions because they just want the facts. When you’re in a school situation and want to get a discussion going with students you have to listen to what they say,” Smith said. “You then have to be a facilitator for that discussion.”
Smith retired from classroom teaching after this school year but she said she will continue to work with officers until she is asked to leave or someone better comes along. She says it’s a calling and it’s too important to teach officers how to relate with children on a positive level at such an important age for her to stop.
D.A.R.E. is an opportunity for students to form a positive relationship with a police officer no matter what their family history with law enforcement is, a vital relationship she said will stay with those students as they grow up.
In July, Smith will travel to Grapevine, Texas, to receive her award at the National D.A.R.E. conference.
Hall said Smith has grown from being intimidated with the task of teaching officers to excelling.
“I have watched her enter into an area that she felt was outside her comfort zone, to taking charge and leading the officers in our state as they ventured to become D.A.R.E. instructors,” Hall said in a letter recommending Smith for the national award. “She has a gift, as with her own students, to encourage you to where you want to learn and want to do your best.”