by Lisa Moody Breslin, photography by Kelly Heck
Music educator Debra Smith has garnered many resume-worthy accomplishments during her 33 years with Hanover Public Schools, but ask her about sources of personal pride and her students’ accomplishments are at the top of her list.
Smith could boast about being Hanover Chamber of Commerce Teacher of the Year, WGAL Impact Teacher of the Year and Eighth-Grade Teacher of the Year, but she doesn’t.
“Pride is not about me, it’s about the students. Something every day makes me proud of these kids,” Smith said. “Whether they are performing at the state music conference, Central Park or the governor’s residence, I’m so proud of them.”
Smith doesn’t even have to cite student performances as sources of pride. The “everyday” moments tend to be the pinnacle for her. When she sees one student being kind to another, or when she joins in respectful discussions among students who have diverse opinions, she is immensely proud.
Students’ ability to form their own opinions, to respectfully question authority and the majority — these are Smith’s sources of pride. Students’ ability to see the world with music as a filter, with music as a form of solace and even a rallying call to action — these are Smith’s sources of pride.
Hanover Magazine hopes to add one more accomplishment for which Smith will be proud: Hanover Magazine’s Person of the Year.
Like many of her colleagues, Hanover Magazine believes that all the student-centered accomplishments that Debra Smith identifies as her sources of pride will also become her legacy.
They are also what make Smith the teacher principals implore to come to their schools. Two schools currently share her talents: Hanover Middle and Hanover High.
Smith teaches voice classes, Music in the Theatre, Music and Musicians of the Holocaust, chamber choir, women’s chorus, and audio recording at the high school. At the middle school, she offers fifth/sixth-grade chorus, seventh/eighth-grade chorus and general music, which includes sixth-grade piano keyboarding
“I went through Hanover Middle School and attended the high school, too, so I’ve known Deb since I was 10 years old,” said Tess Hilyard, principal of Hanover Middle School. “I was in her musical groups, show choirs and her musicals when I was growing up. To return and now work as an administrator really offers me a 360-degree perspective for Deb. “She is still is same Deb Smith today. Kids flock to her; she connects so easily with them.”
Smith is the kind of person who takes a puppet-making workshop and then launches and directs a puppet ministry program as her church. She has attended St. Matthew Lutheran Church for 26 years — and for the last 14 years the puppet collection and skits have grown.
“Puppet ministry reaches people in a unique way. It reminds us that God has a sense of humor,” Smith said.
Smith is the kind of person who creates mini-lessons about the Holocaust for a friend who wanted to inject music into her language arts classes, and then the lessons morph into Smith’s continued mantra that music is form of activism.
“I became fascinated by the power of music and its roots in history — during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam era and especially the Holocaust,” Smith said. “I love that the kids will pay attention to what music is saying to us rather than just letting it play.”
“So many songs make this a better world. Music offers a hold on humanity; it leaves a testament to what the world should know about some very important, often tragic times,” she added.
“Deb’s passion for the Music of the Holocaust course became a springboard for lessons about inhumane things happening around the world,” said Rina Houck, principal of Hanover High School. “Whether she is offering a Saturday morning music program for students and their families, or doing collections for children who have experienced trauma, or for students in Texas after the flood, she constantly tries to make the world a better place.”
Debra Smith is the kind of person who offers a Music Technology class and then helps lure in funding for a recording studio so students who don’t sing or play an instrument can explore music production.
Smith’s activism is rooted in her childhood, which she describes as a blessing. “I had the best parents [Ada and John], I have the best siblings [Michael and Dianne] and also extended family,” Smith said.
“My parents had a lot of foresight. They didn’t play any instruments, but they wanted us all to play one. They instilled in us that hard work and compassion are not optional; nothing is handed to you,” Smith added. “I’ve taken those values with me. And I also know from experience that not all childhoods are as blessed.”
The fact that she recognizes that all childhoods are not the same and inspires students accordingly will be another Smith legacy, many of her colleagues said.
Student praise is effusive, too.
“She is the best teacher you will ever have. She’s always there for you when you need her the most,” one student noted on the website RateMyTeacher.com “… She will help you accomplish things you never thought possible.”
“She has a great gift to work with and understand kids,” another student noted. “She’s not only a great teacher of music but of character as well.”
Smith lives in Hanover with her husband, Andy, who is also a music teacher. Together, they cherish time with their two daughters, Hannah and Caetlyn, as well as with Caetlyn’s husband, Jim, and their children, Amelia and Jimmy.
Though this year marks Debra Smith’s 33rd year in the school system, she said she “still gets giddy about the start of the new school year. When I don’t feel that same excitement, I’ll think about retirement.”