Taniece Thompson-Smith has made no secret of her feelings about how unique Stafford Elementary School is within the Abilene ISD. As of earlier this school year, her only regret was that she would probably have to leave it sometime soon.

As the spouse of an officer in the United States Air Force, Smith – who teaches fifth-grade science at Stafford – and her family have moved all over the country and taught in New York, New Jersey, California, Japan, and Texas. The native of Jamaica had become entirely accustomed to being around a group of students for two or three years and then picking up and moving.

But this trip through the AISD has been different for her. She began to think earlier this school year that she had found a home. She began to believe she had found a place where she needed the students as much as they needed her. She began to feel a kinship with the teachers and staff on campus that she hadn’t felt in her other stops.

In other words, she began to feel at home.

That feeling might not have been cemented on the night of April 26 at the Abilene Education Foundation’s Teacher in the Limelight Celebration, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Smith, in only her second year in the district, was named the Edwin and Agnes Jennings Teaching Excellence Elementary Teacher of the Year winner for the 2022-23 school year.

“I’m still in utter disbelief,” Smith said just a few days before the end of the school year. “I was sitting there that night listening to the biographies of all of the amazing teachers who were up for the award, and I’m amazed that out of all those terrific teachers, I became a contender for the award.”

She and Cooper High School photography teacher Sherry Griffith, the Secondary Teacher of the Year, will now have their names entered into the running to be the Region XIV Teacher of the Year at the elementary and secondary levels, respectively. And while Griffith is retiring after 27 years in the AISD, Smith is just getting started.

After moving all over the country, Smith finally found the spot she says she’s been looking for her entire career. Her husband retired earlier in May, and the family has moved into a house off-base, giving them the security they’ve been looking for the last several years. 

“We’re staying here, all because of what I found in Abilene,” she said. “I’m a beach person, so I thought we would end up in the Carolinas, Hawai’i, or California when my husband retired. But you can get on an airplane and go anywhere. This is my calling. It’s a mission, and I don’t feel fulfilled yet in what I have to do for these kids. My journey isn’t over. I know for sure that I still have a lot to learn. I don’t think I’ve yet scratched the surface with these kids about what they can learn about science.”

The conversation with her husband, she said, wasn’t a hard one. It was almost as if he knew they wouldn’t be moving.

“My husband knows how hard I work – just like every teacher – but no matter how tired I am, I always go back to my ‘Why?’ “ Smith said. “Mine has always been the betterment of society. Anything we want to accomplish in life is never easy. Teaching helps us contribute to the community. Whether we want to accept it, we are role models to these kids. They’re looking at us in every facet of how we present ourselves.

“My husband kept hearing me say, ‘I love my job, I love my job,’ and one day he asked me if this was it; if this was the place,” she said. “I told him I didn’t know. He said when I felt like this was it to say the word. It wasn’t long before I said this was it, and he put in his retirement papers.”

And now Smith – who said this is the first time in their 18-year marriage that she’s made the decision on where the family will live – believes she can really dig in at Stafford.

“For me to walk away from this job, it would have felt like just leaving these students behind, and I didn’t like that feeling,” she said. “I believe I need to get better. My first year was getting my feet wet. I’m getting more organized this year, and next year I’ll be ready to teach.”

Sounds like she’s making herself at home.