I happened to be out of town when the big news was announced: Hillcrest band director and softball coach Brian Smith was named DISD 2010-2011 Teacher of the Year. Which is why I was a bit late getting on the Mr.-Smith-is-awesome bandwagon–too late to get more than a brief mention in Friday’s issue of Preston Hollow People. But any man who can make a band grow eightfold in four years, raise three children all by his lonesome, pitch a softball at 90 miles per hour, and instruct the cheerleading team on the finer points of cheerleading, deserves more than a mention.
I spoke with Smith yesterday morning. Below is our interview.
You’re a single father of three kids. Two are in college now, but how on earth did you manage when they were all at home?
Oh, my gosh. A lot of running kids around like crazy, because you’d drop one off at football practice and another one off at Panadeer [drill team] practice and the other one you’re making sure gets to baseball practice. It was like a non-ending taxi service is what it felt like—making sure that I was doubly prepared the night before, laying out their clothes, being really organized, making sure I had stuff for breakfast and not waiting ‘til the last second, because if I waited ‘til the next morning? Ugh. Forget that.
How did you juggle all that while managing to be, by all accounts, a completely awesome teacher?
My kids have always been involved in my classes. I’ve had every one of them in my band classes, and my daughter was in band and played softball for me. Just always keeping my kids involved in stuff at school. If I’m at school and they’re at school, I know they’re taken care of. Very few times did I ever really use a babysitter and not have my kids with me. Pretty much if I had a band contest or if I had a football game, they came with me. When I moved to Dallas, I didn’t have any family here at all. None. So to not have your mother and dad to help you out raising the kids and all that kind of stuff was pretty difficult.
A parent told me that, from time to time, you actually give the cheerleading team pointers?
My daughter was four-time world champion in cheerleading. She has ever since she was three years old been part of gymnastics and cheerleading, and she’s a cheerleader in college now. Just so many years of seeing it done right and hearing my daughter go “Oh, if they would just do this, they would understand that it’s wrong what they’re doing,” and “If they did this, it would make it so much easier for them.” I’ve been around that almost my daughter’s entire life, sitting up in the bleachers watching her do it and I would sit on the sideline and wait for her to finish practice, and you would just see it over and over and over, so when I would come to Hillcrest cheerleading practices, I was like “Ah! Somebody’s gonna get hurt.” So I’d walk over there and go “Girls, if you’d just do this, then she won’t fall, or it would be easier for you. And nobody’s gonna get hurt.” There’s not always people that know everything—I don’t know everything either—but just some of the points that when I would see them, I knew how to fix them, so I’d help them out.
It’s not every dad who can instruct the cheerleading team on the finer points of the sport.
No. I don’t claim to either, but I knew it’d be better to let them know what I knew than for them to kill somebody. [laughs]
So what brought you to Dallas?
I play softball, and the team that I was playing for was a better division team than I had been playing for in Oklahoma. We were driving back and forth playing softball, and [my teammates] were like, “You ought to just get a job here.” And I had really thought about it. After you’re divorced, you just want a new, clean start, and I didn’t move far enough away the first time. I went from Miami [pronounced my-am-uh], Oklahoma to Oklahoma City, so it was some distance, but it still wasn’t far enough. I just needed a fresh start, something new, and Texas pays better than Oklahoma, so I was like “If I’m going to be doing the exact same job…” I’ve always been a hard worker no matter what I get paid, and I was getting paid nothing in Oklahoma and still worked just as hard as I possibly good.
You must have been a pretty competitive softball player if it made you move to a different state.
Well, it wasn’t just that. My friends were encouraging me. They were educators, too. They were coaches. And they were like “You know, we could find you a great school to come and teach,” so I’m like “Well, I’m coaching softball; I really love it at my school here.” And they’re just like “Well, why don’t you just go check it out? If you like it, great. You made the right decision.” So that’s what I did.
Things have turned out well, it seems?
Hillcrest opened up, and it was actually the ideal situation for me. They were looking for a band director, and I came here as softball coach, but they needed both. It’s kind of worked out in my favor.
And you’re still playing softball?
I actually play for four different teams. I play five nights a week. God, I play a lot of softball. [laughs]
I play third base and first base.
Did you play baseball in high school?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. All the way through school and when I went to college, I walked on at junior college and was there. After I got out, I was coaching, and I learned how to pitch fast pitch, so I’ve played in fast pitch tournaments for the past 25 years or so, because I’ve been a pitcher. There’s not that many men’s teams now in fast pitch. It kind of went away, but it used to be really big, especially in my hometown where I’m from. Men’s fast pitch softball was very competitive.
How fast are we talking?
What you see from TV from the girls, they throw around 70 [miles per hour] or so, and that’s about 95 to 98 miles an hour for baseball, relatively. I threw around 88 to 90, which would be around 105, 110 [mph] baseball.
Have you always wanted to be a teacher?
My mom was a professor in college. She is now retired, and my dad was an educated man, and they always made education my top priority, and I do too. I knew when I got out that I was going to do something in education. I really thought I was going to coach, thought I was gonna teach math and coach and that was what I was going to do. But directions change. I was an all-stater in high school on saxophone, and when I got to college, my first year I was like “I miss music, I really love music,” and I had kept being told I was talented, and why don’t I pursue that as well, and I did. It turned out to be the right decision there, that’s for sure.
Word is you’ve really turned Hillcrest’s band around in the past four years. Is that just the force of your personality or something else?
I just walked around the halls and asked those kids—there were 19 kids enrolled in band when I got here, and they’re like, “There’s lots of people out there in the halls and stuff who just quit band because they didn’t like the atmosphere, and it was embarrassing, and they didn’t want to be a part of that.” They kind of pointed me in the right direction, so I just went up to the kids and said “You know what? Why don’t you come back and see what it’s like? You try one semester with me, and if doesn’t work out and you don’t like it, you can quit. I’ll sign you out. That’s okay.” I said ‘But if you like it—and I think you will—let’s try it and see what happens.” There were so many kids that were in the school, from junior high come to high school, a lot of kids are scared of getting involved in anything because they don’t know how they’re gonna be accepted. You know, I just went out there and started inviting ‘em, talking to their parents when we had parent night and be like “This is different. It’s a different atmosphere. It’s different kids. They’re gonna be proud of this.” And it got contagious. I think they only had two baton twirlers before I ever came, and now we’ve got like 35 color guard girls, and there were 19 band kids, this year we had 160. It’s gotten contagious because of the kids. Yes, I’m a big part of it, but the reason they’re all here is because of these kids that go out and spread the word about how much fun it is and what they’re doing and how excited they are about the program, and that’s what brings ‘em in.
How challenging is teaching band versus teaching, say, a math class?
It’s just so much more extra time you have to put into the kids. In an algebra class, you’re only going to have up to 20 kids, and you teach that hour and that’s pretty much all you see of them unless they need tutoring or something, and then you’ll see them before or after school for an hour or so. My band kids I see every day: Before school, after school, on weekends. We go to contests where I’m with them 10, 12 hours a day. It’s a different type of atmosphere, and you teach it a totally different way, because we’re kind of like a family. I’m not the military guy that beats them down and yells and screams—I do yell and scream, but I’m not like that towards them. They kind of see me as an adult figure that is nurturing and wants them to do better and wants all of us a family to do better, so it’s a totally different atmosphere in the classroom than it is for any other subject.
Excluding the obvious things (winning teacher of they year, growing the band from 19 to 160 kids), what do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a teacher?
I just think all the connections with the students. I have kids on Facebook right now that I haven’t seen in 18 years [from] when I started teaching in Idabel, Oklahoma. Those kids get on my Facebook, and they’re like “Oh, Coach Smith, we miss you. You were incredible. You were such a big part of our lives. You made me what I am. I wouldn’t have gone to college, I wouldn’t have done this, I wouldn’t have done that.” I’ve gone back to class reunions; I’ve gone on float trips with them; I’ve gone to weddings, and they’ve contacted me when they’re having their children, and all that stuff. So my success is through my kids eyes, through my students’ eyes.
What’s the difference between teaching somewhere like Idabel, Oklahoma, which I assume is pretty rural, and a large urban district like DISD?
It’s different [in Idabel] when you walk down the street and you see the person who owns the newspaper, and you see the mayor, and the person right next to you is the chief of police. It’s just a small-town feeling. They have a different allegiance really to the school district than, say, Dallas does because there’s not a lot of people that stay here, were born here, went to this high school, their grandparents went to this high school, their great-grandparents went to this high school. But I’ll tell you. The kids here want and need someone and something in their life that’s positive. There’s a lot of adults in their lives that doesn’t particularly give them a lot of time, and I am willing to give them the time, and I think they feed off of that.
Do you have any specific goals for where you want the band to be one year, five years from now?
I know how to build programs. The next step is teaching them how to be musically sound, because right now although I got a bunch of people generated, I need them to step up musically. They’re just starting to play. They’re starting to turn around and really know how to produce music, and that’s really my next goal, to push them up to the next level of musicality. I know how to give them that energy, and I know how to give them that pride that they feel inside of them. Now it’s time to step up musically and start being artists.
You’ve built several high school band programs from virtually nothing. Do you foresee yourself moving on and starting over somewhere else, or are you happy at Hillcrest?
I’m happy where I am, but nothing says you should be stagnant. The school and the kids and the feeling will let me know when it’s time to move on. There may be that time when it’s time to move to the next school and go up to whatever level that needs to be or. It lets you know. Time lets you know and the school lets you know when it’s time to move on.
What does the teacher of the year award mean to you?
I feel confident in myself, and you always feel that you do the hardest job that you possibly can do and the best job that you can do for your school, but you’re not always rewarded for that. It’s so nice to be rewarded for something that you feel like you just do your best all the time. I try to do right by the kids in every aspect. Not just band, and not just softball, but kids I see walking down the hall, just trying to get the best out of them too, and trying to encourage them to go to class and making sure they’re on time, and always trying to do the right thing for the school and the community.