Jan Smith had done both her student teaching and worked as a readiness teacher at Main Street School when a position opened to teach third grade at Lincoln Street School.
She remembers walking over to Lincoln Street School where four of the veteran teachers met her and introduced themselves. One had been teaching at the school 10 years, another for 24. Smith couldn’t imagine that she’d be teaching at the same school that many years later.
She did just that, and more.
On Monday, Smith will close out her final last day of school at Lincoln Street after 43 years. She has been the school’s assistant principal since 2003, a steady, gentle presence, whose top priority has always been the children.
“She was all about kids,” LSS Principal Drew Bairstow said. “The attention to detail and the care that she is able to provide to children and their families is unbelievable. There’s no stone left unturned. She thinks through every scenario and is able to provide for, or accommodate for, whatever needs children or families have.”
Smith grew up in the area and graduated from Exeter High School in 1971. She went on to the University of New Hampshire with the goal of becoming a teacher. It was something she had always wanted to do. “I always liked kids. I was always very interested in the way kids learned and thought,” she said.
During high school, she volunteered at the former Rockingham School for Children in Exeter and was an avid babysitter. She grew up on a farm and was active in 4-H as a young person, where she enjoyed helping the younger children.
“Teaching was always something I wanted to do,” she said last week as she reflected on her career. “I loved teaching, loved working with the kids.”
During college, she had initially leaned toward teaching high school. She did her student teaching in first grade at Main Street School, and when a job came open for a readiness teacher, she applied and started her teaching career.
After she moved over to Lincoln Street, she taught throughout the school, as a teacher for all three grades during her career, and serving for seven years as the enrichment program coordinator. She enjoyed the fourth-grade curriculum, especially the state history component.
It was also a favorite unit for students, like Nicholas Patrie, who was in Smith’s fourth-grade class in the early 1990s, during a time the fourth and fifth grade had moved to a space at Main Street School. Ms. Smith was always kind, calm and professional, he recalled. “There were some characters in our class and Ms. Smith never really lost her cool,” Patrie said.
Patrie and his classmates spent a lot of time exploring the history of Exeter, including reading the journal of a boy who grew up in town, and prepared a historically accurate dinner that involved making old recipes, and churning butter.
Patrie is currently working toward becoming a history teacher. “I'm pretty sure much of my passion for history started with Jan Smith's fourth-grade class at Main Street School,” he said.
The two elementary schools once shared an assistant principal but when both evolved to have their own assistant principal, then Principal Dick Keays said he knew exactly who he wanted in that role.
“I watched her time and time again address situations that arise with students in a kind, calm and compassionate manner. Always with the best interest of the student at heart,” said Keays, who worked with Smith for 35 years. “That is one of the main reasons I wanted her to be my assistant. Along with the known respect she had of the whole Exeter educational community including students, staff and parents.”
Keays said he could not recall a more dedicated educator than Smith, who always cared so passionately about her students and colleagues. “Jan has consistently demonstrated a kind and compassionate approach to her daily work,” he said.
“She has earned the utmost respect of students, staff and parents because when dealing with Jan Smith you immediately know the respect is mutual. Jan Smith is the epitome of what an educator should be.”
Smith decided to try the move into administration, but admits it was hard not being in a classroom at first. There were times she would walk into a classroom and feel the pull of teaching. But as she grew into her new role, she saw a bigger picture, another way she could help children.
“I think it was nice because I had a teacher perspective,” she said. “You realize what kids need and how you can support them.”
As a teacher, she understood how much teachers come to love their students, and their innate desire to help kids. “What can we do for that kid? What’s going to help that child be successful?”
As an administrator, Smith was supportive and encouraging to staff. When music teacher Sue Noseworthy started at the school in 1983, Smith was teaching fourth grade. “I had so much respect for her as a colleague,” Noseworthy said. “From a music teacher’s perspective, Jan Smith has been a friend, a colleague and an amazing administrator.”
Smith attended and helped at all of the music teacher’s “Music in Our Schools” performances over the years, as well as chorus and musicals.
“She has been instrumental in seeing that the afterschool club flourished with enrichment opportunities for our children and seeing the Destination Imagination teams were well staffed and productive,” Noseworthy said.
Smith often found ways to help behind the scenes in an unassuming way. “She can do something for you and you won’t even realize that she had done it,” Bairstow said.
Parents appreciated Smith’s caring approach to her work. “Jan has been an amazing person throughout my daughter’s years there. A strong role model and someone who Nikki looked up to,” said parent Teddie Pike. “She will be missed by many.”
Carolyn Bartell’s two daughters had Smith for a teacher in the early 1990s. “She loved historical fiction and seemed to bring it to life through her teaching,” Bartell said. “My two daughters were very different learners, yet Jan Smith reached each of them at their level.”
As for her plans to retire, Smith said she wanted to do so while she had time to enjoy the things she wants to do. She inherited the family farm, and hopes to expand some of the gardens on the property, where she also has chickens, beef cattle, and a horse.
As for what she will miss the most, it’s the same thing that brought her to teaching all those years ago.
“I think I’m going to miss the kids, those little interactions,” she said, referencing students talking to her about their day or sharing a special story.
Those students will miss her too, including fifth-grader Abigail Sears. “Ms. Smith is such a caring, sensible, down-to-earth person and made such a difference in my life during a difficult time,” Abigail said. “I wish her a retirement full of happiness.”
Lara Bricker is a former staff writer for the Exeter News-Letter, the author of two books of non-fiction and an Exeter resident. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at Lara Bricker Author, or on Twitter @larabricker.