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Teachers of the year

MIKE SMITH
Man with common name
teaches with odd technique

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

Mike Smith is a common name, but Decatur High School's Mike Smith is not your ordinary teacher.

Mike Smith teaches World Affairs at Decatur High School. Smith's teaching technique involves no homework and no tests, but a great deal of in-class participation.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Mike Smith teaches World Affairs at Decatur High School. Smith's teaching technique involves no homework and no tests, but a great deal of in-class participation.
Most sports fans know him for his success on the basketball court when he turned the Lady Raiders into a state power in the 1980s and 1990s, however, he continues his passion and dramatic flare as he pushes excellence in the classroom.

Smith is Decatur City Schools' Co-Secondary Teacher of the Year, sharing the title with Austin's Corky Vann.

He could have followed the path of a typical coach, giving up teaching when he retired from the game three years ago, however, for him coaching fell on the hobby side.

"I was always a teacher first," Smith said.

The 32-year teacher said giving up coaching and its long hours let him refocus his energies on his government and current world affairs classes. He returned to school to re-sharpen his teaching skills. He reworked the curriculum of his advance placement government class.

The Decatur High students would probably start a major protest, however, if he were to change his world current affairs class. Principal Mike Ward said it's one of the most popular classes his school offers, mainly because Smith doesn't give tests or homework.

"He gets excited because he loves his job, and the students just respond to him," Ward said.

Participation is the most important aspect of Smith's class. He leads the students in debates of the important topics of the day. Politics, sports, religion, movies, school and social life — almost nothing is off limits.

Senior Jennifer Neill said she thinks Smith leans toward a more liberal point of view, but she admits, "It's hard to tell."

Smith said he purposely keeps the students guessing his real views, often taking the contrary side to spur on discussion.

Time magazine is the class textbook. The Decatur Daily is required reading. (The students particularly like the letters to the editor.) He uses "News Quiz" to base weekly game-style competition in which he breaks the class into small groups. Each group earns points for correct answers and loses points for incorrect answers.

One watching Smith working his class can see that he relates well to teenagers. No one is free of his often-pointed barbs. He tells German exchange student, Clemens Canel, new to the class that day, that he should know a current event question on Russia. He gives another student a hard time for wearing an Auburn sweatshirt.

As the points rise or drop, Smith tags the losing group, "Team Scum." But no one is offended, senior Drew Smalley said, because they know it's said in jest.

"Coach Smith is so laid back and he makes it fun," Smalley said. "And I know he expects me to get it."

Smith said the point of class should be to make sure the students learn, and he knows they do. He said he had a student who almost never said anything write him a letter and apologize for not participating.

"It said, 'I'm sorry for not participating, but I probably learned more in my 12 years in school from this one class than any other class I took,' " Smith said. "That's kind of what it's all about."

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