WITH one hand grasping a jar of stewed June plum, and another, chalk which she uses to write on the blackboard, Paulette Smith seems right at home in her classroom as eager children shout out the answers to a Math problem.
This scene, or something similar to it, has been her life for the past 41 years. Acting on the knowledge that her current batch of students tend to work extra hard when incentives are promised, she had got up early that day to prepare June plums which she would dish out in a bag to her bright sparks.
Most of Smith's teaching career has found her catering to the educational and emotional needs of her students at Troy Primary School in Trelawny, in the hope that they will become well-rounded citizens. It's a job she takes pride in, and although retirement beckons, it is one she is certain she is going to miss.
"I still have a passion for teaching and I plan that after leaving school, if society would have it like this, maybe I would retire and I would go for a year and I would definitely come back," she said.
In fact, although she is scheduled to retire a year before the education ministry's 2015 deadline to have 100 per cent literacy in all schools, the sixth grade teacher, whose role also includes being the reading co-ordinator for her institution, plans to stay on board voluntarily for an extra year so she can help the school reach this goal.
A past student of the institution in its days as an all-age school, Smith graduated at 15. Though it became apparent that her grandparents would not be able to finance any further schooling for her, this did not deter her in her quest for further education, and at age 17 she was able to secure passes in the Jamaica School Certificate Examination. With these passes she enrolled at the Caenwood Junior Teacher's College to become a pre-trained teacher and she has been in the classroom ever since.
Smith has noted with interest and a bit of concern, the difference between students then and now. Students back in the days, she observed, motivated educators to teach, whereby today she believes it's the other way around where teachers have to be the ones motivating students to learn. She believes a break down in values and morals over the years has been a contributing factor to this drastic change.
"Back then, we had a different set of children. They were children who you could talk to and I guess the parents were different then, because parents would tell you, 'teacher save the eye' and so you knew the child was left to you," noted the educator.
Over the years, Smith has earned the respect of residents of the community, most of whom passed through her hands at one time or the other. Her passion for the profession has also filtered down to two of her five children who are currently teachers.
Describing herself as a behind-the-scenes person, Smith has always shied away from opportunities that would have seen her becoming a principal. Her place, she feels, is in the classroom, and so she has often pulled to the side so someone else could take on this post.
Smith's only break from the classroom came between 2004 to 2006 when she was pursuing her degree at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Prior to this, the educator pursued a diploma at the teacher's college in Mandeville. Her previous experiences has taught her that she does not deal too well with classroom breaks, hence the reason for her making pre-retirement plans from now, so she will be fully occupied when her time comes.
"The first time I went on vacation, for the four months I didn't know what to do... and so I taught myself to sew and because of that, I sew my clothes myself," she said.
"When I leave, I can go into fashion designing, I can go into farming, I plan to open a daycare centre or do private tutoring," she pointed out.
Smith is a farmer and is also the president for her community development committee. In 2009, she spearheaded the group's beautification project which saw them winning, from the town, third place and a cash prize of $100,000 for being one of the most visually appealing communities in Trelawny. Her group also placed second in the competition in 2010 and got $300,000. The money was used for building a bus stop and making contributions to youth groups in the area.
The educator is also extremely active at the Troy Baptist Church, where she is the president of the Women's Federation Group, a Sunday school teacher and the youth co-ordinator. Having raised her children by herself following the passing of her husband 15 years ago, her focus has always been on the development of youths, and she hopes retirement will find her still making an impact on their lives.