When Louise Smith graduated from Pascagoula High School, she had a lot of plans and not one of them included becoming a band director at Gautier Middle School for the last 21 years.
“I told people all the time I was going to LSU. I was going to major in biochemistry and then I was going to the dental school to become an orthodontist,” Smith said, laughing.
Smith was active in the high school band and played the flute. She attended a band clinic shortly before graduation and met the band director at the University of Southern Mississippi. He conducted a concert and Smith was blown away. The next day, her plans changed in a big way.
“I’ll never forget I was at church and walking from the Sunday school building to the sanctuary the day after the concert and I heard a very distinct voice tell me, you’re going to Southern Miss, you’re going to major in music, and you’re going to be a band director,” she said. “I tell people all the time, it was my faith and God was calling for me to get on the right path. Because I listened, my life has been extremely blessed.”
When Smith told her mother she was altering all of her college plans, her mom was confused by the changes and wasn’t exactly thrilled.
“I have a very Filipino mom,” Smith said. “I told her, I’m going to USM. I’m going to major in music. I’m going to be a band director. To which she said, ‘I’m supposed to be getting a dentist out of this. I will have to support you and you’re going to end up living with me.’”
But now, 21 years later, her proud mother sat right beside her at the Jackson Convention Complex as State Superintendent of Education Mike Kent announced Smith as the 2023 Mississippi Teacher of the Year.
“And mom was so proud, and she was so excited to be there,” Smith said. “I’m so thankful that she was able to be there, and my husband was there. It was just a sweet, sweet day.”
Since the announcement on April 28, Smith has been flooded with 21 years’ worth of special memories, including walking her first band students across the stage for their state concert evaluation, a myriad of state marching championships, and creating unique commission pieces.
“It’s still very surreal,” she said. “I’m extremely humbled and overwhelmed that out of all the teachers in Mississippi and the great work that they do, they picked me. I have a huge team of people with the other band directors and the students and their families. This is not a job that I do alone. I’m a part of the wheel and for some reason, they thought enough of me to award me Mississippi Teacher of the Year. But it’s really about everyone. I just happened to get to be the person who holds it.”
And she has a better understanding of how her students feel days before a concert.
“They say to me all the time that they are feeling all the things,” she said. “I get it now. I’m feeling all the things at once.”
Smith added that any future teachers out there need to be sure to assess the motivation behind why they are considering teaching.
“If you’re looking to get rich, look for something else to do,” she said. “If you think you have summers and all these holidays off, think again. If you’re looking to be the change and impact a child’s life, you’re starting to find the right motivation in becoming a teacher. Reach out to teachers you trust and ask them questions about their job. I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t willing to explain the best parts and worst parts of the job.”
Pascagoula High School Principal Dr. Caterria Payton was also named 2023 Mississippi Administrator of the Year in the same ceremony.
“We are extremely proud of both Dr. Caterria Payton and Ms. Louise Smith who have shown over the years to be amazing educators and champions for both our students and fellow staff,” said Billy Ellzey, superintendent of the Pascagoula-Gautier School District. “The tireless efforts of Caterria and Louise working for children make the Pascagoula-Gautier School District an amazing place to educate and grow our leaders of tomorrow. Both of these educators are the models for whom we want all of our students to become.”
This is part one of a two-part series about outstanding educators in the Magnolia State. The next story will feature Dr. Payton.
Photos are courtesy of Louise Smith and the Pascagoula-Gautier School District.