FRONTENAC — Students who had Phyllis Smith for class remember the Parade of Presidents, the charity Kids Helping Kids, seasonal decorations and “I love Lucy.”

These were a few of many experiences Phyllis brought to fourth and fifth grade students during her 24 years at Frank Layden Elementary School.

Phyllis said it is time to retire because of her health and she has plans to travel across the country upon retirement.

Her passion for social studies — one of the main subjects she taught — helped her shape the programs and events she implemented during her tenure.

She was working at Maurices as a manager when inspiration struck — she should become a teacher. Phyllis said she originally planned to be in the field of business. Phyllis had already received a business degree before working at the retail store. Her employees were the first to point out that she should consider becoming a teacher — that’s technically what she did daily after all.

“I enjoyed the shop, I had children at that time and it [working at the store] was making that more difficult,” Phyllis said.

So, she went back to school at Pittsburg State University to become a teacher.

While in school she student taught at Frank Layden Elementary in the very same room she professionally teaches in now.

On her first day of teaching she was “really nervous,” she said.

Phyllis gave credit to then-elementary school teachers Debbie Restivo and Danielle Oehme who helped calm her beginner’s nerves.

“You’re excited, but nervous, just like the kids,” she said.

Phyllis also gave credit to her teaching partner, recently retired teacher Diane Deplue.

“We were able to bounce ideas and things off each other for 20 years and that made a nice working relationship and I think it helped build that team effort,” Phyllis said.

Over the past two decades she has watched the school grow from having half-day kindergarten to twice the teachers and rooms from when she started. Next year the school is set to have even more she said.

“It’s doubled in size since the 20-something years I’ve been here … from a graduating class of 20 or 30 to being closer to 80,” she said.

Several programs and project ideas were spearheaded by Phyllis during her tenure at the school.

Phyllis helped organize the yearly event called Parade of Presidents which later because of enrollment numbers became the Parade of Presidents and First Ladies.

“The kids really enjoyed that because they got to identify with that, and dress up in the classroom and present it in front of the whole school ... I still have kids come back now and say ‘I still remember about the president or first lady I had to report on,’” she said. “That’s when you know it made a difference.”
She created a veterans’ board outside her door, and this past year emphasized Frontenac graduates who are veterans. Pictures and short biographies were put on the board for all to see.

“I hope they carry that on after I leave, it was really well received,” she said.

Phyllis also created a charity called Kids Helping Kids. Students collect money for three charities, Children’s Miracle Network, Ronald McDonald House of the Four States and St. Jude's Research Hospital, noting “we’ve had our own students who have used those.”

This year the students were able to raise a total of $3,000 — $1,000 to each charity.

After fundraising efforts are over the students have a leadership assembly where the student body celebrates their accomplishments by throwing pies in teachers faces and other messy things. Recently, Principal Courtney McCartney was taped to a wall and covered in silly string by students.

Another idea came to Phyllis during the turn of the century. She started having fifth graders write about what they enjoy at the elementary school, their most prominent memory and their plans for the future through high school and beyond. They are to open the letters their senior year in high school.

“It was funny because for a long time didn’t know if the students really liked it or not until it showed up in a graduation speech … I’ve had seniors come up and say, ‘you know one of the things I’m looking forward to is getting my time capsule letter,’” she said. “Some of those small things make a difference.”

There are many things to be missed and which she has enjoyed about being a teacher over the years, she said, but what reaches the top of the list is when a student’s’ “light bulb goes off.”

“They give so much back at times,” she said. “When you see that light bulb go off and you know that kid who hasn’t been getting it, has got it.”

It’s humbling and exciting, Phyllis said, when a student misses attending her class and is enthusiastic about learning.
“They will come by and tell me they miss having class right now because we have been doing assessments, and we wouldn’t get to have to have social studies class that week, the idea that a kid would miss a class is pretty cool,” she said. “I didn’t like social studies when I was their age and somewhere along the line I had been inspired by a couple of teachers and so my goal is by the time they leave they are going to enjoy social studies more.”

— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.