Meet Our Teachers: Derek Smith

Derek Smith teaches English and Social Studies classes in the Upper School and is our Director of Service Learning. He is teaching American literature and consumer economics this school year, his sixth at Morgan Park Academy.

Mr. Smith holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s degree from Framingham State University.

Q&A

What do you like best about teaching at Morgan Park Academy?

I enjoy how much autonomy and flexibility we are afforded as educators. I’ve created courses from scratch about Middle Eastern literature and about graphic novels, for example, and we’re reintroducing a speech class next spring. The encouragement to create new classes and to make use of our strengths enables and pushes us to continually grow as educators.

I also love our small community and the connection I have with students, including the opportunity to make connections outside of the classroom. As teachers here, we do not lose touch with our students once they graduate and move on to college and adult life.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I find the appeal is throwing stuff at students and seeing what sticks. I like to approach teaching as exposure in all directions, something that I hope appeals to the 21st-century learner. Show them a clip of something, play a song as it may link to a character we’re studying, give them a news headline that contemporizes what might have seemed to be an outdated reading assignment.

Humor also goes a long way in the classroom, and I hope it enables students to relax, if only for a moment. I find that students in general are more stressed today than they I had seen in recent years — probably ever, actually.

I still maintain high expectations for my students; I absolutely do. But we need to understand the ways in which times have changed — and our students with them.

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What do you want MPA students to take away from knowing you?

This goes back to the Academy being a small, dedicated community. Even when students graduate and I am no longer their teacher, I want them to know that I can be of assistance to them in other ways. I want my current and former students to know that there is always at least one adult who will listen to them rather than talking or lecturing at them. I want them to know that I will lend an ear to listen to their hopes, struggles, and aspirations — and help them realize that their aspirations can turn into concrete plans. And, of course, I’d like them to remember that their teacher wrote a book.

What do you enjoy about being Director of Service Learning?

With service, I am able to help organize events with and for students outside of the classroom, which allows me to get to know students outside their academic lives. That is one of the great aspects about working at an independent school and a big reason why I love working here.

Having been in the Peace Corps for nearly three years — serving nine months in Nepal and nearly two years in Moldova — I feel that I can offer a unique perspective on service. Moreover, in talking with college counselors and admission officers in recent years, I’ve noticed a trend in what colleges seek. Increasingly, they’re looking at what students can bring to colleges beyond the classroom; participating in service is one of the things students can bring to a college community.

For instance, for our two all-school service days each year, Upper School students have a lot of input on the activities we choose. As we do with our annual Project Week global experiences, students ranked their preferences and were placed accordingly, teaming up with classmates who shared similar interests. This increases the chances that students will have not just a one-time learning experience, but make a genuine connection to a cause and an organization that they will continue to serve.

In the past two years, we have forged relationships with NGOs and communities in and around Chicago — more than a dozen, by my count. We have students who are on the Teen Advisory Board for the Ronald McDonald House, for example, because of our work with them. It’s special when you have companies reaching out to us because of our continued involvement.

It’s all an effort to connect with the greater community and get outside our bubble here on campus. When students can see how it benefits others, they experience a shift in perception.

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