Texas Tech University

College of Human Sciences Grad will Help Students with Communication Deficits

April 30, 2024

College of Human Sciences Grad will Help Students with Communication Deficits

Sydney Smith wisely used her expedited time on the Texas Tech campus as she chased her purpose to educate children with special needs.

When Sydney Smith was in fifth grade, she made a life-changing observation. 

Her mom, Kim Smith, had just become an educator at Prosper Independent School District in Prosper, Texas, and she began to make a difference in the lives of special needs students. 

“I got to grow up and see her love of teaching kids who were not always handed the best cards,” Smith recalled. “She taught them how to love being at school and work with other people, and how to do that fluently in social situations where they're able to show the skills she taught them.”

From that point forward, Smith knew she wanted to be an elementary teacher. Whether she taught math or science she was not sure, but she was fairly certain she wouldn't follow her mom's path into special education. 

 “I wanted to do something different,” she explained. “My mom is her person and I'm my person, and I stuck with that.”

Sydney Smith and her mother
Sydney Smith with her Mom

Smith began to pursue her dream career path while still in high school, student teaching for two years through a program called Ready, Set, Teach! After her graduation in 2021, she decided her next best step was to enroll at Texas Tech University as an Early Childhood Education major in the College of Human Sciences

Her first year on campus, Smith focused on prerequisites in her core classes. She missed working in schools, but looked forward to her class periods in the Child Development Research Center

“You get to hang out with these kids starting out in one room for 6-week-olds to 2-year-olds, and then in another room that's for 2-year-olds to 4-year-olds, and so on,” she said. “I got to finally be back in the classroom and I just loved it.”

Smith's desire to educate came with a goal to graduate in three years – which had her undertake a “Herculean feat” of 21 credit hours her first fall semester and 24 credit hours the following spring. 

Sydney in the classroom

She also returned home to substitute teach at Prosper during her summer/winter breaks. During that time, she gained experience in every elementary and middle school in Prosper ISD – about 15 schools in all. 

But the past two years, it was teaching an Extended School Year (ESY) summer program for students who receive special education services from Prosper ISD that brought clarity to her ambition.

‘I Felt a Sense of Fulfillment'

Smith was placed with students at Hughes Elementary School who are nonverbal or face communication deficits. She began to think about behavior as a type of communication, which opened a new form of dialogue that connected the students with others. 

“I had never been in a communications classroom before, but once I experienced working with students who need to use functional communication in order to have conversations with the people around them, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that incredible program,” she remembered. 

Even though most of these students were not at their home campus with the teachers or paraprofessionals they're accustomed to during the school year, Smith was able to work with them and gain their trust. She admired their resiliency and diligence to overcome the challenges they faced and learn new skills and concepts. 

It was further gratifying to watch them grow once she began helping them take steps forward. Smith will never forget how the students progressed from nonverbal to using a communication device to answer questions in full sentences. 

“You can have a conversation with them because they're listening actively and able to give you this complete response in a way that's unique to them,” she said with a note of pride. “That took them a really long time to learn, but it's showing what we're doing with them is important.

“That made me want to continue to give that opportunity to every student in my classroom because it was something so special I had never seen before.”

Sydney in the classroom

With an understanding of how rare it is to take part in such significant student achievements, Smith decided she would become a special education communications teacher. She planned to focus on providing an equitable education for students who are nonverbal or face similar communication deficits.

Through her knowledge of development and science-based teaching practices, she would guide her students to an education tailored to them that would set them up for future success. 

“I want to share their stories and show people just how hard they're working and how much they truly bring to our school and community,” she said. 

Sydney with other teachers

Once Smith shared her newfound aspirations with her mom, she gained a cheerleader who began to pass along resources and networking opportunities. She looked forward to returning home from classes to listen to Kim's “plethora of knowledge.”

Perhaps the best part was Kim's words of advice also came with a lack of sugar coating.

“This job can be hard, and she's very frank about that,” Smith said. “But she's also positive in what she does, even though it's difficult. She knows that since she was able to do it, and seeing everything I've been able to do, she knows that I will be able to do it as well. That has been really helpful.”

Kim not only feels honored her daughter chose a similar career path as hers, but she also recognizes the value she will bring to the classroom. 

“We are in a very interesting time in public education and we desperately need teachers who understand the current climate and choose to forge ahead anyway,” Kim explained. “As a fellow educator, I am truly grateful for people like her who join our field and bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the table. As her mother, I couldn't be any more proud of the continued dedication that she has shown towards developing her craft. 

“I have absolutely no doubt that she will move mountains for her students. Their lives will be better because Sydney is willing to walk beside them, helping them achieve their goals and become productive members of our society.”

Training through Texas Tech 

When away from her biggest advocate, Smith has connected with peers through her student involvement in President's Select, Phi Upsilon Omicron Honor Society, Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and the Human Development and Family Sciences/Early Childhood Education (HDFS/ECE) Ambassadors for the College of Human Sciences – which she serves as president

“Each of these organizations has allowed me to grow not only as a person, but also as a part of the Texas Tech family,” she said. “I have been able to get to know current students, encourage future students, and pay respect to alumni through my time here, and every second of it has been incredibly meaningful and something I will always carry with me.”

Group photo

Smith has further developed as an educator through the TechTeach program in which she has been a student teacher for the past two years at several different schools like Smith Elementary in Lubbock. 

Through her involvement with the HDFS/ECE Ambassadors, she also gained a mentor in Shera Thomas-Jackson, the HDFS undergraduate program director. As head of the HDFS/ECE Ambassadors, Thomas-Jackson met with Smith every week despite her demanding schedule as a student, teacher and leader. 

“Sydney is a high-performing student,” Thomas-Jackson said. “I am constantly in awe of all she takes on and accomplishes with grace. She is truly phenomenal.”

As Smith worked with her fellow ambassadors to connect with prospective and current students and introduce them to the possibilities of a College of Human Sciences major, Thomas-Jackson could see her potential as an elementary teacher. 

“Sydney is one of the calmest people I have ever met,” Thomas-Jackson commended. “She has patience along with her passion in working with children, especially those who have communication difficulties. I know she will make a huge difference in her classroom.”

Shera Thomas-Jackson with Smith (front left)

During her time on campus, Smith has only strengthened her teaching skills through training she received about typical and atypical developmental for language, physical, social, emotional and cognitive abilities in addition to pedagogy and classroom management. Despite her many responsibilities in addition to her schoolwork, she was able to complete her third and final year with a 4.0 GPA. 

She credits this achievement to her professors and motivators like Thomas-Jackson, and by staying grounded to her goals. 

“If I took ‘no' for an answer on how many classes I could take, or how many experiences I could have with teaching and having a social life, I would not have as much going for me as I do now,” Smith acknowledged. “I was able to do that through being confident in who I am as a student and as a person. It has not always been easy and that's OK because if it was easy, then everyone could do it and you don't want everyone to be who you are.”

On commencement day, Smith will feel ecstatic in the sense that she is becoming the person she is meant to be. However, she admits she also will be emotional just moving her tassel from right to left as she says goodbye to the many organizations and friends she will leave behind. 

What helps her push through that bittersweetness is the “hello” she will say to her next chapter through the job offer she accepted from Hughes Elementary School to become a communications teacher. 

This means Smith's role model will soon become her coworker at Prosper ISD – so now, it's Kim's turn to watch with admiration as she applauds her daughter from the crowded stands of the United Supermarkets Arena

“We are incredibly proud of all that Sydney has accomplished during her time at Texas Tech and will be elated to see her walk across that stage at graduation,” Kim exclaimed. “She has worked so hard to get to this point, and she is more than ready for the next step. We feel extremely blessed to have a daughter who knows what she wants and has put in the time, effort and energy to achieve her goals. Now it's time to watch her fly!”

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