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Retired Vet Moves to the Head of the Class

Retired Vet Moves to the Head of the Class

Posted: August 16, 2019

When George Smith (right) retired from a 23-year career in the United States Air Force in 2011, at age 41, he had some decisions to make on his next steps in life.

He accepted a position with a sign company as a graphic designer, his calling in life before the military, but the career progression was not what he had hoped for. At the suggestion of his wife—“the one who knew him best,” Smith said—he began working as a substitute teacher in the Grand Island Central School District. He loved it.

“It didn’t seem like work,” Smith said. “I was having too much fun.”

Now Smith is earning top honors along with his master’s degree in career and technical education at Buffalo State while teaching full time at Grand Island High School. In May, he was awarded the Veterans Make Great STEM Teachers scholarship and was honored at the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

Smith began his teaching career as a long-term substitute at Grand Island High School teaching technical design, which aligned with his experience in graphic arts. Two months into the job, he was already earning widespread praise for his teaching abilities. Word reached John Popovich, associate professor and chair of the Career and Technical Education Department at Buffalo State, who paid Smith a visit and spoke with him about a career in teaching.

“He asked if I wanted to join his program at Buffalo State, and if I applied myself, I could be teaching for real in two years,” Smith said. 

Popovich said he’d heard about Smith from other teachers in the Technology Education Program at Grand Island High School. They raved about how knowledgeable Smith was and how well he worked with students, and they asked Popovich if he could help Smith earn his teaching certification.

“It was easy for me to do, as George is a veteran and has a terrific technical background, and he is motivated to become an excellent teacher,” Popovich said. “We merely coached him and made him aware of his many options.”

In the Air Force, Master Sergeant Smith started out as an aircraft hydraulic mechanic. His superiors noticed that he excelled in instructing aircraft mechanical and hydraulic systems and recruited him to teach new aircraft mechanics. A New Jersey native, Smith worked at Air Force bases all over the country, as well as in England. He earned three associate’s degrees while in the military, and he was deployed to several forward operating locations during the Gulf and Iraq wars.

It took him 17 months to earn his bachelor’s degree in technology education at Buffalo State, graduating in spring 2018. For Smith, the support he’s received at Buffalo State has been priceless.

“Everyone has been super supportive,” he said. “If I need anything, they bend over backward to help me.”

Clark Greene, a lecturer in career and technical education at Buffalo State, said Smith was a top-notch student, and that it often felt like he and Smith were co-teaching the class, because he helped the other undergraduate students so much. 

“George is very humble, appreciative, and just an exemplary educator,” he said, noting Smith’s maturity and life experience. “He’s absolutely phenomenal in the classroom, and just a great person.”

Of his new career, Smith said it didn’t seem possible when his teaching journey began.

“The stars aligned,” he said.

But his professors at Buffalo State might argue that the natural-born teacher aligned many of the stars himself.

Pictured at top: Clark Greene (left) and George Smith

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