Pam Smith, a Carl Wilkens Fellow with the Genocide Intervention Network, is active in Holocaust education and planning programs for Holocaust survivors. Photo by Scott Holstein
Scholarly AchievementsA teacher’s commitment to education has garnered local, national and global recognition By Antonio Rosado
It is a football Friday, and Pam Smith’s pace has quickened. Her hometown high-school football team is kicking off what she hopes will be a championship season, and she doesn’t want to miss one snap.
It’s just after lunchtime, and Smith is on her way to fulfill a volunteer obligation. She pauses and releases a disappointing sigh as she realizes she will have to sacrifice her favorite pastime — practicing on her piano — to attend the game. Her young-at-heart cousins and friends will give her an earful for tampering with their game-time tradition of sitting together to watch the boys of fall take the field.
“I graduated high school here,” says Smith, a 55-year-old public school teacher for more than 20 years. “The stadium is walking distance from my house, and I go sit with my cousins at the football game. It’s fun.”
The Boggy Bayou is paradise for Smith. However, her dedication to academia and community service has taken her far away from the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay.
“I may go away for a while every now and then,” Smith says with a chuckle. “But I will always come back here.”
After spending much of her adult life traveling and teaching in classrooms from grade school to graduate school, Smith returned to Niceville in 2004. Her bags were a little heavier with accolades and experiences from her extensive 26-year teaching career.
“I think it’s good when people move away from their home area. It sometimes allows you to grow in ways that you may not in your hometown,” Smith says. “I always knew I would come back here, and I was hoping that I would be able to make contributions here similar to ones I have made in other places.”
Her passion for the education of people all over the world has garnered Smith considerable acclaim. In 2000, she received a Teacher Fellowship from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for her contributions to Holocaust education. Smith’s belief that education is the key to creating a more peaceful world led her to continue her work in Northwest Florida.
“In 2006, I helped bring two traveling exhibits from the Holocaust Museum, and I’ve planned several programs for Holocaust survivors,” she says. Smith’s continued dedication to the development of genocide awareness led to her February 2010 selection as a Carl Wilkens Fellow by the Genocide Intervention Network. The network is a worldwide coalition of investors and national fellowship leaders across the United States, with more than 1,000 student chapters at colleges and high schools, that is working to establish a permanent anti-genocide constituency committed to stopping atrocities around the world.
“We talk about how important it is that as U.S. citizens we are conscious about what is going on in other parts of the world and what is going on with fellow human beings, and work with people in our community to be active on behalf of these other people,” says Jessica Reveri, communications director for the Genocide Prevention Network.
Reveri applauds Smith’s ability to take advantage of as many opportunities as she can to grow as a leader, as well as her commitment to using previous relationships to raise consciousness about global issues.
“She is from Niceville, and she has come back to that community and taken advantage of the personal, familial and professional relationships to identify community and educational programs that she can develop that could resonate with what that community needs to get them involved,” Reveri says.
The Wilkens Fellowship has inspired Smith to work at establishing a genocide resource center at a local library or community college.
“If we are going to be effective in intervention against genocide, then we’ve got to educate people to the warning signs and educate people to the opportunities for involvement that are short of military action,” she says. Smith also planned a learning opportunity for her students and other interested individuals prior to the November presentation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.
To make the educational efforts more realistic, Smith plans to have one of her peers, a Carl Wilkens Fellow and Rwandan genocide survivor, come and speak in April 2011.
Her efforts to make a solid impact have gone past Holocaust and genocide education. Smith has also used her planning skills and prowess in the educational community to spearhead various initiatives geared at increasing academic excellence. For the past five years, she has written and administered a Florida Humanities Council grant.
“We’re in our sixth year of the grant that I’ve directed that provides free public programming in Niceville,” Smith says. “There are just so many opportunities here to continue to make contributions.”
The resources Smith helps bring to Okaloosa and Walton counties are vital for the production of quality humanities-based programs in the area. Patricia Putman, associate director of the Florida Humanities Council, says Smith has taken the initiative to plan and develop complementary resources aimed at extending the reach of various projects.
“Pam is instrumental in designing the program schedule, contacting presenters and marketing the programs to the local community,” Putman says. “She thoughtfully conceives of and implements a diverse annual schedule of programs on a variety of themes.”
Her effective efforts on local education, paired with her valuable experience in several capacities as an educator, have afforded Smith the opportunity to have an effect on a national level. She was selected as one of 15 teachers appointed as Teaching Ambassador Fellows for the 2010–2011 school year by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
“The Teaching Ambassador Fellows will offer invaluable contributions to the Department’s work to support reform in states and communities,” Duncan said in a Department of Education news release. “They are the voice of teachers in the department and truly act as ambassadors to teachers, students and parents across the country.”
Smith’s selection as a teaching ambassador was memorable because of her personal understanding of politics, her master’s degree in public administration and her commitment to education.
“That it is one of my proudest moments,” Smith says. “To be able to be on calls and talk personally with the Secretary of Education about issues, whether it’s teacher evaluations or access to public records, is very meaningful to me.”
She plans to use her influence to advocate for the expansion of online education programs like those she is facilitating as an online instructor for Okaloosa Online, Blue Ridge International Academy and Troy University.
The balancing act Smith manages is reminiscent of a character from the book “Caps for Sale” by Esphyr Slobodkina, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I remember this little guy that used to wear all these different caps, and he would have a cap (and) then put on another and another. That is me,” Smith says. “I won’t pretend like sometimes I don’t get overwhelmed, but I don’t know how else to live life, because there are so many things I want to do, and I feel like service is the most important contribution I could make.”
She says that one day she will put some of her hats on the rack for good, but after revealing a few items on her bucket list, it’s clear that Smith will only be making room for newer ones.
“I hope to join the Peace Corps or teach English abroad for a while. I’d like to also play the piano at a lodge in Alaska. That’s the kind of things I would enjoy,” she says. “I feel like I will never get to the point where there is not something meaningful that I can do to help me to learn and also others to learn.”