Jessica Smith, assistant principal at West Albany High School, was named Oregon's 2023 Assistant Principal of the Year.
She has worked at West Albany for 19 years, first as an English and social studies teacher and sports coach, and now as an administrator.
She will formally accept her award at a June 2023 conference of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators.
What drew you to education?
I have a lot of younger siblings, and I played a lot of "school" when I was little, so it was kind of a natural move for me. I had some great teachers in high school in English and social studies, and so I think that's what pushed me in that direction.
Nineteen years is a long time to stay at one school. What has kept you there so long?
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Sometimes you don't know what you have until it's gone. But I know what I have, so I have no reason to ever look for a different position. Our school is like a family; we call it our Bulldog Family. Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog. It's a really family-friendly environment. Our students are respectful and kind, and the staff are there to do anything to help kids and to help each other. It’s a very warm and welcoming place to be.
Susie Orsborn is the principal, and she hired me in 2004, her first year as principal. She has mentored me my entire career and allowed me the freedom to take on different leadership roles and try my hand at different things.
How have you seen education change throughout your time at West?
Teenagers are teenagers to a certain extent, but I feel like the biggest change has been in technology. When kids started bringing cellphones to school, we were like, “Absolutely not, you can never be on them.” But then we realized we had an opportunity to help them navigate that world and prepare them for the woes of social media.
When I was in high school, you went to all the events because otherwise you didn't see your friends and you didn't know what they were doing. Social media kind of took away from being involved in all the events at school. But then after COVID when we couldn't go to anything, I feel like kids have this renewed energy to do and be a part of everything they can in person.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
It's the relationships I've made with my co-workers. Some of them I've worked with all 19 years that I've been there, and those are invaluable. The mentorship I received from my principal and Assistant Principal Rich Engel have both been instrumental in helping me find my way.
When I left the classroom [for administrative work,] I knew I was letting go of certain things, and I was nervous for what that would be like. But I still get to work one-on-one with kids all the time, and I get to work more with their parents now. I am super grateful for the way we run the school.
I work with the freshman class, and I'm partnered with a counselor who will follow them for all four years. So, I've had a chance to work with every counselor in our building, and their support is amazing. They do so much for our kids. That was another added surprise of being on that end of things and working side by side with them.
Do you ever miss teaching?
There are times when I really, really miss it. I miss interacting with all students in the classroom versus pockets of kids. With the sub shortages we've had, I get to cover classes every once in a while. So, that's kind of a treat to do. Part of my job is observing teachers, and I really enjoy sitting and watching them do their thing and interacting with the kids, getting kind of caught up in the moment with them.
What sports did you coach at West?
I coached volleyball the first year I worked there, and I coached softball my first two years. I took on the cheerleading program in my second year, and I coached that for seven years. It was a really wild time because the football team was winning state, and my cheer team was winning state. It was school spirit craziness.
I was never a cheerleader, but I learned how to do it. I had had some good people I could go to and ask for help, and the girls taught me a lot. They're a very athletic, very talented group of girls, so I was just kind of along for the ride.
How did you feel when you won the award?
I knew my principal had nominated me, but I had no expectations. I was just super flattered that she wrote such a beautiful letter and recognized me for the things I’ve been doing. I was shocked, and I'm still like, “Did that really happen?”
I just see it as a reflection of this community that I work in. We persevered through a lot over the last few years, and one thing has never changed: It's how much we care about each other and the kids and giving them the best opportunities and experiences that we can give them. I got the award at a staff meeting and my family showed up, and I cried because it was in front of all the people that mattered so much to me.
I think this goes without saying, but do you plan to stay at West for a while longer?
My daughter is going to be a freshman at West next year. I’m so excited for the next four years. And so I have no intentions of going anywhere else. It's a beautiful community. I love what we do, and I'm really excited to have my daughter there. She hopes to be in the band program.
Any other thoughts about your time so far at West?
I'm just really grateful to be a part of the team that I'm on and to be in a community that's so student-centered. Award or no award, I'm super grateful for my position and the things that I get to do every day.
Joanna Mann (she/her) covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.