Hometown Hero: WSU alum Katy Smith is Minnesota’s top teacher

August 10, 2011


Hometown Hero

By Margaret Cox

When Winona State alumna Katy Smith was selected as the 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, she became the first Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) teacher in the award’s history to receive the prestigious honor. “It was really cool!” exclaims Smith, as she recalls the awards event in early May. “I felt that I had represented ECFE teachers well, but being with nine other excellent, deserving finalists, I figured whoever wins, wins.”

Such is the humble nature of Smith, but there is no denying her knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm for teaching the youngest of learners and their parents. An ECFE teacher for more than 15 years, Smith has spent countless hours teaching parents about childhood development and how to prepare their children for school. Her classroom is filled with parents, babies, and toddlers. Her gift of creating a community out of perfect strangers has come in particularly handy: within just a few sessions, she builds a network of parents who share ideas and support. “It’s a ripple effect,” she explains. “Whether I’m there or not, parents can make connections that they carry to their own neighborhoods.”

At the start of her career, Smith didn’t set out to change the world of parent education. She graduated with a bachelor’s in social work from WSU, and worked as a chemical dependency counselor. After starting her own family, Smith started thinking about families and their role in the educational process, and soon discovered that parent education was a natural fit for her.

“Early childhood parent education is a hopeful field,” says Smith. “I wanted to partner with families at the beginning of their journey.” She pursued a parent education license from WSU, and later a master’s from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She has taught in the Winona school district since 1993.

Over the years, Smith has studied parenting techniques and tested them firsthand. “What I teach, I do, because it makes me a better educator,” she says. “It’s hard to teach a lesson about the importance of eating dinner as a family each night if you don’t do it yourself.”

Smith is a firm believer that a great deal of learning, values, and connections can occur right at the dinner table. “Language is a good example,” she states. “You can read 100 books about Clifford, the big red dog, but vocabulary – bigger words and concepts that go beyond reading – that happens at the dinner table.”

Parents who have participated in Smith’s classes are grateful for the guidance and support they receive from her and their fellow classmates. In each class, Smith strives to equip parents with the confidence, tools, and support network they need to build strong relationships with their children and prepare them for success when they start school.

“My everyday reward is when parents walk away from class with a better understanding of their children because something sparked a light bulb for them,” Smith says. Outside of the classroom, Smith can be found visiting new parents through Baby Connections, a Winona County program designed to provide information and resources to families with infants. “I pretty much do parent education wherever I go,” Smith says with a smile.

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About Winona State University

Founded in 1858, Winona State University is a comprehensive public university with more than 8,500 students. The oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Winona State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Winona, the West Campus in Winona, and Winona State University-Rochester.

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