Student Spotlight

Karen Smith, beloved special education teacher, honored with posthumous master’s degree

May 21, 2017
Jennifer Smith and Gary Brahm

Chancellor Gary Brahm offers his condolences and his congratulations to Jennifer Smith, who accepted both her own and her mother’s diplomas.

Brandman University awarded Karen Smith a posthumous master’s degree in teaching special education Sunday afternoon. Her daughter, Jennifer Smith, crossed the commencement stage at Chapman University to receive both her mother’s master’s degree and her own. Tears glistened in her eyes and in those of her mother’s mentor, Dr. Lynn Larsen, who recalled what a special gift Karen Smith had for connecting with her students.

It’s a connection that Jennifer Smith knows better than anyone.

“My mom and I did everything together. We motivated each other. We called each other every day on the way to work.  The fact that I’m getting my degree and my mother’s degree is really special,” said Jennifer Smith. Her grandparents, brothers Rod Smith Jr. and Adam Smith, as well as uncles, aunts and nephews, joined her at the Brandman commencement. A third brother, Joshua Smith, was unable to make the trip from Washington state, but “is surely here in spirit,” said his grandmother.

On April 10, Karen Smith died after being shot at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, where she was a teacher. One of her students, Jonathan Martinez, was also killed and a second student, 9-year-old Noah Brandy, was seriously injured before Cedric Anderson, Karen Smith’s estranged husband, took his own life, according to police.

Karen Smith with her grandson Micah in a photo taken two years ago and provided by her family.

Karen Smith with her grandson Micah in a photo taken two years ago and provided by her family.

“It’s not how you die but how you live,” said Jennifer Smith, adding that her mother would not want to be remembered as a victim of domestic violence but as a person who cared deeply about her students and was an inspiration to her family and to her students.

“My mother was 44 when she started teaching. She was an advocate for women who want to go back to school and start a career after raising a family, for individuals who want to make a career change, and for anyone who has a heart and a passion for with students with special needs.”

Karen Smith grew up in a family of teachers and wanted to study speech therapy. Her dreams of earning a degree at USC were put on hold when she married at age 19. By age 28, she had four children.

When she thought one of her sons wasn’t getting the attention he needed in school to overcome his dyslexia, she decided to home school all four children. After her two oldest children graduated from high school, she decided she had the time to go to school as well, earning her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in 2005 from California State University, San Bernardino, and enrolling in the credential program at then Chapman University College, now called Brandman University, immediately

“She was really nervous about starting a teaching career,” recalled Jennifer Smith, who accompanied her mother to the credential program orientation. The personal attention and small size of the campus reassured her, said her daughter. “After that, she felt really comfortable.”

Karen Smith family.

Family members turned out to see Jennifer Smith receive her mother’s and her own diplomas from Brandman University.

Her mother’s enthusiasm for the Chapman/Brandman teaching program inspired Jennifer Smith to choose the university as well.

“My mother selected the university because it catered to working adults. She enjoyed the classes she took at Brandman and loved how her teachers provided rigorous but practical instruction that she could take and use in her classroom,” said Jennifer Smith, adding she developed a special bond with adjunct faculty member Robert Clutter and Dr. Lynn Larsen, her mentor and associate dean in the School of Education.

Dr. Lynn Larsen fights back tears as she recalls mentoring Karen Smith as Smith's daughter Jennifer and Chancellor Gary Brahm look on.

Dr. Lynn Larsen fights back tears as she recalls mentoring Karen Smith as Smith’s daughter Jennifer and Chancellor Gary Brahm look on.

Like her mother, Jennifer Smith credits Brandman with making her a better teacher, challenging her to rethink her teaching practices and help her math students develop critical thinking skills and solve problems in a practical context.

It was her mother’s approach to teaching math that made Jennifer Smith love the subject. “She really taught me how not to just do the steps of a solving a problem. She made learning enjoyable When I made the decision to go into teaching, it was only natural to go and teach math.”

Karen Smith ability to inspire extended beyond her family. Notes left after the memorial service in April and emails to the family credit her with keeping struggling students in school. “Mrs. Smith honestly changed my life. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have graduated high school, let alone be in school now working on becoming a dentist. She was honestly the person who helped motivate me to succeed,” wrote one student. Another student plans to name his first daughter after her.

Knowing their mother’s impact on the lives of others provides her family with comfort, as does a strong religious faith. The efforts of Holly Robinson Peete, wife of former professional football player Rodney Peete, and the HollyRod Foundation will help keep her mother’s work alive, said Jennifer Smith. The foundation, which emphasizes autism awareness, named the Karen Smith Angel in the Path award in her honor.

Jennifer Smith with her mother's parents, before the Southern Commencement on May 21, 2017.

Jennifer Smith with her mother’s parents, Richard and Irma Sykes, before the Southern Commencement on May 21, 2017.

It’s still difficult for Karen Smith’s family to think about life without their mother. “Living a life that mom would be proud of and remembering the lessons that she taught me also helps me cope with the loss,” said Jennifer Smith. “I will continue to work to become a better teacher in order to bring honor to my mother. Above everything, my mother wanted all of her children to be happy in life. So, I know that if I pursue my passions and live intentionally, I will live a life that would make her proud.”

For the students graduating this year from Brandman, particularly those who plan to teach special education, her mother would likely have this advice, “Be patient. Know that a lot of your students have a mindset that they can’t do it and may have already given up, especially at the high school level. Know that you’re there not just to provide assistance but to help them overcome their own self-limiting beliefs.”

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