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Latch on and don’t let go
Teaching and life are not for the faint of heart. But my dad taught me to never stop learning—and the wins are worth it.
Feb. 09, 2020

Perhaps it was the teaching of W.E.B. Du Bois and the Talented Tenth that motivated my philosophy from the beginning. In 1903 Du Bois wrote about the importance of education and leadership in African American empowerment.

My journey from small town Mississippi to the Great Wall of China started with the encouragement and example of a smart and successful man with a third grade education who wanted nothing less than the talented tenth for his children. 

Dr. Smith in regalia

From humble beginnings

I began my life as the third of ten children in a small town, Clarksdale, Mississippi. Our parents were leaders in the church and could often be heard telling us, “Go to school, get a good education, and that’s how you get a good job.”

My mother was a loving housewife and Dad had but a third grade education. Growing up, he was the oldest child in his family, and he had to work to help make ends meet.

Despite his lack of formal education, our father was a successful entrepreneur who provided us not only with a comfortable life, but with four years of college and a car each.

Starting at about the age of ten or eleven, my father would take me to numerous business ventures with him, so I could do all the reading for him. Although I did not realize it until I was an adult, he must have been very intelligent because he would remember everything I read vividly, and no one realized that he had poor reading skills. 

Sheryl in 5th grade

My mother used to tease me because she said I obtained my high school diploma twice since my father convinced his GED teacher to let him bring the final test home, and I completed and passed it for him.

After high school, I took my father’s advice and attended the Historically Black University, Jackson State. My skills in English and Literature were so strong, after a couple of other pathways, I was determined to become a secondary English/Language Arts teacher. Ironically, I failed the certification by 1-2 points on three occasions!

Though I was discouraged at the time, my father spoke to me through my dreams, reminding me of our many business trips together.  He said, “I never groomed you to be an English teacher, I groomed you to take your business knowledge out to the world”

So I earned my MBA and was offered a Business Instructor position pending passing the Business Certification exam. Without even studying…I aced it. My father was right, as always. And so, my journey as a teacher began. 

As I teach, I learn

I learned that being a secondary education teacher, especially of one color, is not for the faint at heart. There have been  trials—from peers, administration, and from students. This was never clearer to me than the day I was standing outside of my classroom greeting students as they entered. A member of the football team was amusing his peers with a detailed and profane description of his escapades with a young lady the previous evening. When I asked him to stop, he turned and hurled at me every profane word that he could think of and said his wish was that I would die.

Before the young man was escorted away, I told him that he needs to change his attitude in order to excel in this life. Feeling that I was the one wronged, I was surprised when I was called to the principal’s office and told that I would be suspended.

Over the weekend, I decided I would resign.  When Monday came, I called to speak to the principal and announce my resignation, but as I was on hold I noticed a letter in my bag. It was from one of my students, a boy from Guatemala. Though it was written in broken English, I understood completely. This letter completely changed my mindset.

He told me how difficult it was in America since he spoke little English, which also made classes difficult for him. He mentioned that he did not have many friends and his parents had allowed him to return to Guatemala; however, his big brother made him come back to America because he felt his little brother could get a better life. The student told me he planned to kill himself, until he got in my class. He said I sat with him, worked with him on his English, and made him feel that I cared about him. This, he said, made him feel as though he could do it.

That letter made me realize that there is something bigger than the occasional defeats—that I was needed by the many students I can help. When the principal got on the phone, what she got that day was not a resignation, but me uttering that I would be there enthusiastically and ready for the day. The principal actually dropped any discussion about the previous incident with me. 

I adopted the attitude of if I can make a difference in the life of at least one student, I have walked in my purpose, thus, my philosophy became, “As I teach, I learn.” 

A small town girl goes to China

Eventually, the time came for me to take the next steps in my lifelong learning journey. The road to Doctor of Business Administration was not an easy one, but it was well worth the struggles. Many doors began to open for me. Over the years, this small town girl has found her way to countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Then came the ultimate opportunity— I was invited to be a guest scholar at University of Jinan, China where , I gave lectures on diversity, international business, and leadership.

Dr. Smith in front of office door

I now serve as Education Chair for the NAACP Denver Branch and am an associate professor for The Community College of Denver and affiliate professor for Metropolitan University.

With years of teaching, business leadership and travel to share, I always tell students to keep their eyes on the prize, and don’t allow quitting to be an option.

I still sometimes encounter the challenges of being a woman of color in a city where instructors of higher education are predominantly white. I have been viewed as though I have no place in this industry, my degree and intelligence has been questioned, and I have been overlooked in a room.

Despite these things, I come from a father with a third grade education who fought to achieve his place in this world and he passed that determination to me. I advise students, “be secure in who you are, when you set a goal, take on the tenacity of a bulldog so when you bite, you latch on and don’t let go.”

I never would have believed this small town girl would go from walking the rocky roads of Mississippi to The Great Wall of China.

Where will life take you?

Your education doesn't stop when you choose a career and graduate—in fact, it might be just beginning. Ask Dr. Sheryl Smith! 

Whether you're at the beginning of your career journey or looking for your next step, there's a classroom full of students who will benefit from your passion and experience. 

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