There were two things that drove Merritt Smith to enroll in the Physical Education program at USF―her love for sports and her desire to teach in a way that goes far beyond the ordinary.
With her prior experience as a volleyball player and a children’s volleyball coach for various leagues in Florida, Smith began her academic journey with the kind of skills that most students would gain throughout the course of the program.
While it seemed as if she had no hurdles to jump, Smith’s biggest obstacle came when faced with the FTCE General Knowledge (GK) Test, the teaching certification exam that would determine her eligibility for a career in the classroom.
“I struggled with the GK test in the math section. At one point, I couldn’t pass it and so many people were telling me to give up,” Smith recalls. “But I said, ‘This is what I want and I’m going to go get it.’”
Focused on overcoming the challenge, Smith dedicated a semester to studying and was able to re-join the program with not only a well-earned accomplishment, but also a stronger passion for becoming an educator that enabled her to grow in many ways.
Throughout her time as a teaching intern at Ferrell Middle Magnet School, an all-girls preparatory academy in Tampa, Smith worked closely with her collaborating teacher (CT), Tavonda Lucas, who effectively guided her on the do’s and don’ts of classroom management.
Smith shared how her CT led her on aspects of teaching that ranged from how to best handle student behavior to how one should start their very first day of class. To mirror what she learned, Smith taught various learning units and presented her students with the history and rules of a sport, and also how they can use defensive and offensive strategies while out on the field.
When creating lessons plans and making assessments, Smith says she incorporated PowerPoint presentations, Kahoot quizzes and various other activities so that students can fully understand how a sport is played and how other games connect.
“I’d ask them an assessment question like this: ‘Compare and contrast a similar rule that we used in soccer that we are now using in street hockey,’” Smith said. “So, they’re making these connections between different lessons constantly, and that’s what we want them to do.”
Smith’s experience at Ferrell with her class of middle schoolers provided her with much more than what she expected. With Ms. Lucas as her CT, Smith says she was given a perfect illustration on what teaching should truly look like.
“She is absolutely incredible,” Smith said. “At one time when I was there, I saw her take the shoes off her own feet and give them to one of her students because they wanted to play but they didn’t have the right shoes. That’s just the kind of teacher she is and that’s what I want to emulate.”
Once the time came to leave the school at the end of her field experience, it was difficult for both Smith and the students in her classroom to say goodbye. On her last day, Smith received gifts, participated in student TikTok videos and was given a ton of letters that expressed just how important she was to her students.
Smith writes words of encouragement on the mirrors of locker rooms for students on her last day at Ferrell Middle Magnet School.
Faculty and staff in the College of Education noticed the impact Smith had on students during her teaching internship. It wasn’t long before Associate Professor Sara Flory, PhD, nominated Smith as the 2019-20 Outstanding Intern of the Year at USF.
When told that she was awarded the university-wide achievement, Smith says she couldn’t contain her excitement.
“I was blown away,” Smith said. “For me, it’s encouraging because it makes me feel like people see what I’m doing and what physical education is doing…It pushes me even more.”
Following her graduation this summer, Smith will start a full-time teaching position in the fall at the Florida College Academy, a private Christian school in Temple Terrace, Fla.
She aspires to continue her studies at USF by pursuing a master’s degree in physical education and by extending her impact throughout her career by taking on leadership roles. Dr. Flory, one of the many professors who has seen her succeed as a future educator, shared one characteristic about Smith that has continuously set her apart.
“Once she puts her mind to something, she literally does not stop and she’ll find other ways to achieve a goal if she has to,” Dr. Flory said. “She’s very resilient and that’s something that has always been impressive to me.”
USF's Physical Education undergraduate program is designed for those who wish to qualify for Florida certification in teaching Physical Education for students in Kindergarten through 12th grade.