Around the small northern Florida farm where Timothy Smith grew up, education did not come first — or easily. The schools were old, small and sparse. Smith worked in the fields as part of his chores and rode the bus more than an hour each way to and from school.
"I picked tobacco, peaches, bell pepper, cabbage and more. It made me appreciate hard work and the value of an education," Smith recalled. "I worked in the fields and at a local grocery store, sometimes more than 40 hours per week. But I still succeeded in graduating as valedictorian. In my life, education was, and is, paramount."
He had another reason to strive for learning: No one in his family had ever graduated high school. "I needed to be the first," Smith said. This created "a level of accountability among my teachers and my family. If my grades dipped, everybody — and I mean everybody — knew about it."
His first taste of teaching came during his college years, when Smith substituted for his own former fourth-grade teacher.
"It was frightening, yet wonderful, to be responsible for the education of others," he said of his two-week tenure. "On my last day, the students begged me to stay and be their teacher permanently. I was hooked."
Smith completed community college in two years. But completing his bachelor's took 15 more — with eight of those years spent serving in the Army and National Guard and also holding several jobs in private industry.
"But even in those in-between years, I taught," Smith said. "In the Army, I was always teaching a class on first aid, how to operate a machine gun or how to identify chemical attacks. I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for my efforts."
Once out of the military, he worked as a purchasing manager for a Fortune 500 company, but he remained a mentor.
"I taught new employees, including managers, on the operations of the company," Smith said. "The desire to teach always remained with me."
Flash forward to 2001, when Smith became the math department chair at the Sacramento-area Florin High School. He has led the department for six of the 14 years that he has taught on campus.
"One of my greatest accomplishments was building a superior math department even with so many teachers retiring or moving to the new district high schools," Smith said. "In spite of having over half of the Florin High math department new to our school, we continued to improve."
In 2003, Florin High School was recognized as one of the top four schools in the nation for "closing the achievement gap," and Smith traveled with several other teachers to Washington, D.C., to represent his school.
Over the years, Smith has also helped create one of the largest high school "Mathletes" teams in Northern California, and in 2014, started a district-wide middle School Mathletes program. He is also working to create a scholarship program at Sacramento State University geared toward Mathletes.
When Smith sees students walking in the door or sitting down as class begins, he sees the future.
"I owe it to them to prepare them the very best I can for that future," he said. "I never lose sight of what I am holding in my hands."
His greatest reward? When learning occurs, not for just a few but for everyone.
"I have hundreds of notes from students that I keep as reminders of my successes. So many of them say 'Thanks, Mr. Smith, for not giving up on me.' It doesn't get much better than that."