Each time a new school year begins, educator Javett Smith’s first rule is to learn her students’ names quickly. When they notice that level of attention, the teenagers in her Hollywood, Florida, classroom try harder to do well. Often thinking back to her own experience in school, Smith wants more for her students than she received. A quiet girl, she often felt overlooked, as if she were “just a number.”
“[Some] of them feel stupid,” Smith says of her students. “They feel like they can’t learn.” It’s a dynamic that requires both creativity and sensitivity in the classroom. At a previous school, a young woman got so fed up with lessons that she threw her textbook across the room. Smith paused and took a deep breath. “OK, sweetheart, we don’t have to learn math today,” she said. Instead of getting angry or punishing the girl, Smith pivoted to another subject. She can sympathize, after all—she experienced the same emotions many years ago. Teachers rarely, if ever, encouraged her to speak up in class, and she felt dumb for asking questions.
Though Smith maintains a peaceful classroom, her personal life has been marked by volatility. She was the first in her family to go to college but quit when she became pregnant. Later she resumed her education, eventually getting a master’s degree, but it was an uphill battle for a single working mom.
At her lowest point, Smith escaped an abusive relationship with a man who was eventually arrested and charged with attempted murder of another woman. She was between jobs, living with her dad, and feeding her sons grits to keep them feeling full. She read her Bible and prayed for God’s help, knowing she needed some kind of encouragement. Then she found it in Dr. Stanley’s preaching. After discovering him on television one Sunday, she called and signed up for the In Touch devotional.
“Once I started following Dr. Stanley and diving into the devotionals, I had peace,” she said. Smith took copious notes in the margins and reread every issue several times over. She turned others on to the material and now uses Dr. Stanley’s lessons to lead Bible studies with family and friends. “Those devotionals, when I tell you I have a bunch of them, they have been my strength when I am sad … but I have to rely on who I know I am in Christ.”
As she now teaches at a private Christian school, Smith can openly talk about the Lord. Because her students have learned to trust her with their education, several of them also open up about the problems in their personal lives. Again and again, Smith points them to Jesus.
Still a mostly quiet person, Smith doesn’t like to draw attention to herself. Nonetheless, students and parents voted her Teacher of the Year. Though humbled by the award, Smith sees it as a reminder that God knows her intimately and holds her life and vocation in His hands.
Photography by Eve Edelheit