Science of Reading: The Podcast

S5-E9: Making every day a "wins day" with Grammy-winning educator Mickey Smith Jr.

June 15, 2022 Amplify Education Season 5 Episode 9
Science of Reading: The Podcast
S5-E9: Making every day a "wins day" with Grammy-winning educator Mickey Smith Jr.
Show Notes Transcript

Mickey Smith Jr. is an acclaimed Louisiana educator, author, saxophonist, and self-described "solutionist" who feels a strong calling to help educators and teachers. Mickey, who received the Grammy Music Educator Award in 2020, brings his motivational blend of music and message to this very special episode in which he and Susan Lambert discuss music, perseverance, and finding purpose as educators and human beings. In between interludes of uplifting songs and stories, Mickey shares his proven principles for helping educators create sound connections and culture in today's classrooms. He also describes his methods for providing all-purpose encouragement and offers a tangible approach to finding one's own personal mission statements—or, as he likes to call it, our legacy song.

Show notes:

Mickey Smith Jr.  - Website

See the Sound -  Podcast

The Keep Going Tour


“I want to share some of the things that helped me to keep going, so that someone else won’t miss their next and best steps.”
—Mickey Smith Jr. 

“I believe we all have a sound. I think our success comes, number one, from the promises we make and keep with ourselves, but also the authenticity we live out that sound with.”
—Mickey Smith Jr. 

“If we all have a sound, ultimately I think our goal should be to create a legacy song.”
—Mickey Smith Jr.

“The sound I’m talking about is not the audible but the internal. It’s that thing that leaves an effect with folks beyond what you just teach them. It’s how you reach them.”
—Mickey Smith Jr.

Susan Lambert:  0:01
We have a very special episode today. One that will remind us of the important work that happens every day in every classroom: A connection between the teacher and student. Joining me today is Mickey Smith Jr. An acclaimed educator, author, saxophonist, and winner of the Grammy Music Educator award in 2020. Most recently, he was a keynote at the Plain Talk conference and we thought everyone needed to hear his message. Thank you to all our teachers who play such an important role in the development of students beyond academics. And enjoy today's episode. Well, hello, Mickey, thank you so much for joining us on Science of Reading: The Podcast.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  0:58
Thank you for having me. It's absolute pleasure. Looking forward to just some time well-spent together.

Susan Lambert:  1:04
That's awesome. You're a music teacher and you're on a reading podcast! So for our listeners, we're not gonna talk about reading today. <laugh> but we are gonna talk a lot about teaching. We would love for you to share with our listeners, just a little bit of your story. We wanna jump right into it. Why in the world did you decide that you wanted to become a teacher?

Mickey Smith Jr.:  1:23
I consider music to be the universal language and it really spoke to my heart at an early age. How did I get into teaching music accidentally? I was a business administration major in college and I was in the middle of finite math one day and I realized something powerful. I don't like math! <Laugh> I'm not really good at it. I mean, I kept the grades up, but it was like I had that epiphany moment where it was like, wow, if you live to be a hundred and you work more days than you don't, do you really want to go, day in and day out, with something that you tolerate, or something that you celebrate? And for me, I started like thinking, OK, what am I good at? Where can I add value? You know? And I think that's important. 'Cause a lot of people might say, what am I good at? And I've heard people say, "Those that can, do. And those that can't, teach." And I hate that term. Because the end of the day, it's not even about what you do as much as what you be. Your being.

Susan Lambert:  2:19
I love that.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  2:20
So, I start thinking, what is my being? What do I do that when I do it, it adds value to others, so that they can see their being? And I start thinking, I'm saying, Well, I love music. Let me think about this. And I started realizing wow, I'm in, like, five ensembles in college, right? I'm the first in my family to go to college. So at this point I'm figuring this thing out on my own. I'm like, I'm in five musical ensembles. I'm taking applied lessons and I'm like, wow, I'm working with some kids at my church. We started a little youth orchestra. Let's see, I do summer programs. Like, I'm like the counselor for these foreign exchange programs. And I'm helping youth in the community and I do a little coaching. Wow. I work with kids and I work with music. And it hit me: Dummy! You're a music teacher! <Laugh> I didn't even need the advisor for that one. So I got up the middle of finite math. And it was so rude. I don't even know this lady's name. I feel if I ever had the chance to tell her, I'm sorry, I would. I got up in the middle of her class. I walked out. I changed my major. And I have not worked a day in my life since. Since then I've been able to go on and pursue, the opportunity to pour into others through music. And every day I serve that role, for many years as a middle school band director. I would've never thought, would've never thought in a million years I'd be back in middle school! But I love beginning band. And we'll talk a little bit more about that. And I've taught high school, done some adjunct work in college. And now I find myself teaching at a small school, small private school in South Florida, pre-K through eighth grade.

Susan Lambert:  3:52
Oh my gosh. Those are my kids. I love that age.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  3:55
Never a dull moment. Living the dream. Loving it.

Singing voice:  3:58
<sings> A little something extra makes a classroom better. C'est bon. Come on. Teacher leader Lenya. And yeah, a little something extra makes a classroom better. C'est bon. Come on. Teacher leader lenya.

Susan Lambert:  4:18
So not only are you a teacher, you also won a Grammy in 2020. What? I didn't even know they had a category for what you won. What category did you win in?

Mickey Smith Jr.:  4:28
It's a fairly new category. I was only the seventh person to ever win this award in the history of the Grammys. So it's an award that was brought together by the Grammys in an effort to highlight the individuals who give that initial start to so many people that we oftentimes see celebrated. We see the rock stars, we see these different folks, but generally speaking, there was somebody who sparked that fire, so to speak, in them. And I think it's just an incredible effort on part of the Grammys: Not just advocate for music, but education in general, just showing people that everybody gets their start from someone or something. And I put in, I'm gonna be honest, you get nominated by folks in your community, you know, colleagues or mentors, anybody can nominate you, but out of the close to 5,000, if I'm not mistaken, nominees that they accept, they only allow about 200 to go through to the next portal. And it is almost a year-long process. And that first year I had a good friend of mine. He nominated me for this award many years ago, actually, on a whim. He was like, "Man, why?" And I love a man; you gotta know him; he said this in love, but he said, "Why are you wasting your time in the classroom? Because you're such a great musician," is what he told me. And I was like, no, I love teaching. You know? And he kept on. And finally, I'm like, Dude, if you saw me teach, you would forget about me playing. And he was like, Oh, that's kind of brash. I said, Well, look, I wasn't trying to be any kind of way. I just I'm really passionate about teaching. He's like, Man, I feel that. So a year later he comes to my classroom. I forgot we had this conversation and he watches me teach. Again, I just thought he was there. Visiting. Totally forgot our conversation. When I finished teaching, my man walked up and he goes BRUH. BRUH. And when my man says BRUH, that, that means like, WHOA. Like back in the day, Joey Lawrence on Blossom. WHOA. That was like his thing: Like, WHOA. And I'm like, Man, what's up? He's like, You know, we had a conversation a while back. He says, "I'll never bother you again about playing professionally to that extent." He's like, because I see it today. He says, matter of fact, "I'm gonna nominate you for something. I need you to just go along with it. Don't try to talk me out of it." And I was like, OK, you know, whatever, do what you gotta do. He tells me about this award. He nominates me for it. I'm thinking we won't go anywhere. There's people like from Juilliard and Berkeley School of Music and all these different places. I'm like, there's no way this little school from a little town nobody's ever heard of from somebody nobody's ever heard of is gonna make it anywhere. Well, fast forward, I made it to the finals. I made it to the finals that first year. And I was like, Wow, that was amazing. So I did it again because, not to get the award necessarily, because I loved the process. It was like national board certification without the stress. It was a pleasant experience. It was like a mirror into your process. It really made you reflect and think about things. And I felt like my teaching became better after going through this process. So I was like, let me go be processed again. And I did it a second year and I lost. And I came back and I did a third year and I lost. And I did it a fourth year and I lost. I made it to the finals again. The fifth year at this point, I got this picture in my head. I was just kind of meditating on this. And I saw it. And I've only had this experience maybe two or three times in my life where I saw something, when I've had those experiences, that thing has actually happened. Right? And this was one of 'em. I saw myself winning this Grammy. I'm like, oh my God, this is crazy. I'm gonna win this Grammy, because I knew that feeling, right? It was familiar. I said, let's go. So the sixth year we do it again. And I didn't tell anybody cuz you sound crazy if you say that. And then we get to the end of the year and I'm conducting an honor band. And I was getting 'em ready for the real clinician they were gonna bring in. And the kids were retired. It was after school. It wasn't my kids. It was kids from all over the district. They didn't wanna be there. And then we started teaching. They were starting to have a good time. And then the phone rang and it was the Grammy's and I'm like, let's go. It's like a movie. It's like a movie. So I walk off the podium. Kids are all cheering like, Hey, this is so much fun. We had a great time, Mr. Smith. And you know, as a teacher, you feel validated. And I got this phone call, I'm trying to scurry to the hallway and I pick it up. And my man's like, Hey, this is such and such from the Grammy's. And I'm thinking to myself, I know. You know, And my man's like Mickey, you know, wow, you know, you're amazing. We've been following your work. Obviously, you know, at this point, you know you've been named a finalist and your work is amazing. She's like, it's second to none. That's why it's with great disappointment that we have to tell you that you were not selected this year's winner. And I'm like, it's like, somebody punched me in the stomach. You know, when you get your hopes up, somebody out there is listening. You know what I'm talking about. Like, when you don't have the high hopes, it don't hurt <laugh>. But when you go all in with that bad boy, and then it don't work the way you thought, that's what it really, really hurts. Right? So anyway, I decided I wasn't gonna do it again. Then I went home and I saw my family was disappointed. My kids were crying. My wife was crying. I'm like, Ooh, it's just—it wasn't supposed to be all that. You know, it's just an award, right? Like, oh, I'm tapping out. It's over. And then I called my cousin, Lisa, who you have to understand, since I was a kid and I started playing a saxophone, Lisa told me I was gonna win a Grammy. And I called her, I told her about the disappointment, shared everything I just shared with you. And she was going through some stuff at the time. And she listened to me and she said, "You finished, Maestro?" <Laugh> I said, 'Yeah!" I said, "You got something to say?" She's like, Yeah. I just got three words. I said, "What." She said, "Keep on going." I was like, Oh, see, for anybody that knows me, that's like my words. So she was diabolical. She threw my words back. You can't argue with yourself. You know what I'm saying? So I decided to do it again. And she said, "But look, if you do it this time, I need you to do it." Right. I said, "What does that mean?" She said, "Where's that hat I bought you?" She said, "I don't see you wearing it." And to be honest with you, I ain't really like the hat. <laugh> You know, you got a loved one that buys you something you don't really like, you're like, I ain't really like the hat. She said, she said, "I know what you're doing." She says, "You need to go get that hat. I know you just pretending you don't have it. You need to get the hat because I love you, cousin. But without the hat, you kind of corny." But you know, you got relationship. That's somebody you have a relationship. She could just keep it real. Right. Keep it honest. She said "Also, why you not wearing your red?" I was like, Ooh. She's like, You gotta wear your red! And there's a reason for that, you know? The personal reason for the red. She's like, You gotta wear the red. I said, "Ooh, it feels—I'm like, it feels a little ostentatious, honestly. It just feels like a bit much. And she stopped me. She said, "No, it's a bit you. You have to be you. I said, "OK. OK, Touche." So I went ahead and did it. And she told me a few other things, too. And on June 21st, I submitted my stuff for the Grammys and I sent her a text message. And I said, Hey, I'm gonna win this year because I wore my secret weapon. And I snapped a picture of my hat. I had no idea that the very next day as I was walking on stage to perform, Lisa would pass away.

Susan Lambert:  11:21
Oh man.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  11:21
So it's so interesting that when people see you at your most visible, sometimes you're at your most vulnerable, yeah. Months later, I would get a call that I had dreamed about before, except this time they said, "Mickey, you won the Grammy."

Susan Lambert:  11:34

Mickey Smith Jr.:  11:36
And I can't help but think two things. That Lisa saw it before I saw it. And also can't help but think that the timing is always the timing, and the timing is always right. Even if it doesn't feel right. Because now, had I not been through that pain, I don't know that I would've been equipped to be able to hear people's hearts the way that I'm able to now. Because it's one thing, it's one thing to say, keep on going. But it's another thing to say, I've been there.

Singing voice:  12:11
We can all share love. We can all share love.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  12:22
That's my Grammy story. It was amazing experience. And my kids thought it was amazing. My students thought it was incredible. They think I'm a rock star.

Susan Lambert:  12:30
Thanks for sharing that. And for our listeners who can't actually see you or I, I'm looking at Mickey right now and he has a hat on, he has a red blazer on, and behind him is a big red sign that says, "Keep on going." So you sort of live that every day, don't you?

Mickey Smith Jr.:  12:48
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's not a—it's not a caricature. It's not a act. I believe we all have a sound, and we'll talk about that. And I think our success comes, number one, from the promises we make and keep with ourselves. But also the authenticity we live out that sound with. And for me, "keep on going," is not just a catchphrase, but it's a mantra. It's a mantra. And it's a symbolism of everything that that can be. And it's a testament to everything that has been in my life, so.

Susan Lambert:  13:17
And it's applicable for our teachers, right? Like right now, the situation that we're in. And I mean, it's been a tough couple of years. I mean, teaching's tough anyway. But man, it's been a tough couple of years. The work teachers out there, the work that you do, we appreciate it so much. It's important. It's difficult. How do you, Mickey ,keep yourself engaged in that? What do you do to keep that sort of engagement and motivation in front of you?

Mickey Smith Jr. :  13:47
I think...I was telling some kids a few days ago that in order to play music, it's like the Olympics. It doesn't matter what level we get to as an athlete. You know, when it comes to races, sprints, you know, track and field, they always say, "On your mark, get set, go." They say it on the pre-K playground: "On your mark, get set!" They say it! They say it at the recess field. They say it at the track and field, whether it's an organized event and yes, they say it at the Olympics: "On your mark, get set, go." And for me, to answer your question, the phrase "On your mark," for me, just simply means, What do you want? Knowing what you want. And it's so amazing to me that I feel like there are so many of us, and I say us, 'cause I've been there and I'm still working on it. I'm still a work in progress. But for much of my life, I was like a ship without a sail. I didn't really know what I wanted. And when you don't really know what it is you want, or who you are, then situations can really have an incredible effect on you. And I think those people that know what their mark is, what they're calling, what they're called to do...and not even just what they're called to do. Like we said before, what they're called to be. I think there's a reason we're not human doings; we're human beings. We're called to be. But so many people don't—Shakespeare said "To be, or not to be; that's the question." I think it's the answer too. So what is your mark? What is the mark you wanna leave on this thing called life? I think it's called our legacy song. I believe that everybody should have an XYZ statement for their life. If everybody has a sound, and the sound I'm talking about is not the the audible, but it's the internal. It's the significance that resonates with people when you're with them or repels! <Laugh> Be honest with you. It's that thing that leaves an effect with folks beyond what you just teach them. It's how you reach them. And if we all have a sound, I think ultimately our goal should be to create a legacy song. And, and having laid to rest—what I didn't tell you, the year Lisa died, I actually laid to rest seven family members and friends.

Susan Lambert:  15:55

Mickey Smith Jr.:  15:55
My mother lost all her siblings in one year. She's the last remaining. I mean, Thanksgivings are entirely different now. Christmases are entirely different. There's a level of pain you go through. But watch this. In going to those funerals, there was an incredible awareness because after you hear so many eulogies and read so many obituaries, you realize—like, somebody told me a while back that the power is in the dash. It's not really about when you were born. It's not really necessarily about when you die. But it's that little dash in between. That's where the power lies. You know, and drawing that line in the sand that says, "I am here. Who am I?" That's what the legacy song is about. And I think it comes down to three things. It's a XYZ. So the X basically marks the spot. And the X is that intersection between your gift and your passion.That's what I discovered in finite math. <laugh> I thought about what I was gifted at. And also thought about what I was passionate about. And I was able to intersect the two. And it was that epiphany. Bing. Where I just went, Oh my goodness. I'm a teacher. And specifically I'm a music teacher, right? I'm not in the game to make other professional musicians, but I'm in the game to present my gift and my passion in a way that allows somebody to discover their passion. Right? That's the X. The Y is just that. It's your Why. Who are you serving? Who's your stakeholders? What is your Why? And a lot of times the why is actually the who or the what.The one little boy I taught years ago, they had the hardest time reaching him. I was at this Title I school, you know, he was all tough. And he was a tough little kid. Like, you know, young man, really, 'cause he big as me, you know? But the thing was, they couldn't figure out how to engage him. He didn't seem to care about anything. But I found out his Kryptonite. My man loved Grandma. See, Grandma was raising him and he was the baby. Everybody else was incarcerated or dead or out the picture. And what I realized was, I pulled him aside. I say, "You the last hope." I said, "You keep talking about Grandma. She about to get evicted. Grandma this, Grandma that." I said, "Grandma's done the best she can. I think she's done amazing. But she can only do so much. Now she needs all hands on deck and everybody else, they ain't available. You the last cat. You wanna know, you can help Grandma? Go get that education. Go get that education. How about be the first one to not get locked up before 18. Go out and get the job. And then now all of a sudden you can help Grandma get that better life. You can help her get that thing they call the American dream, <laugh> right? And not live the nightmare she been in." And all of a sudden now, woo. Now when he cut up, they called me, they ain't called the coach. They ain't called the principal. They called me. 'Cause they couldn't figure out what I was doing. I'd walk over to him. He'd cuss out everybody in the room. I'd just look at my man. I'd say, is that gonna help Grandma? And it would just crush him! All of a sudden. He'd go sit down. He shut his mouth and he'd get back to work. Why he found his Y. And the Y is oftentimes a Who or a What. What's your Why today? If you can find the X and if you can identify the Y, now you're in position to act, to actionably get to the Z. And the Z is just the endgame. Where do you wanna see this go? Retirement? That can't be the answer! We can't wait to be at retirement. Right? Like where do you want to—like in a dream state, if you couldn't fail, what would you want? What do you—like The Notebook? Like the movie? What do you want? That's what Noah asked Allie: "Wat do you want?" And if you can create that for yourself, pssshh, all of a sudden, now you're a game changer. You're a game changer. And it becomes a powerful mission statement for you. So that's what keeps me going every morning. I have a clear XYZ statement for myself that allows me to have that level of focus and propels me to my promise and not just lets me get paralyzed in my potential.

Susan Lambert:  20:01
That's beautiful. And you know, I just, I was thinking about that, and the image that was in my mind was the friend that came to watch you in the classroom. And how much of what you just said reflected and actually impacted him. Not just a student, but impacted so many other people around you. Because you're living out your XYZ. That's beautiful.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  20:23
And we all have that opportunity. You know. I think we all have that. But so many times we're so busy looking, we're not seeing. We're not seeing. So, you know, I just want to encourage folks—again, if any of that resonates with you, just take some personal time and look again for the first time. Look again for the first time at what you're doing.

Susan Lambert:  20:43
Yeah. Now in your case, it's about students, right? So obviously you won a Grammy for being a teacher and not for being an amazing performer, but I've heard you say that like one of your goals is to really help students find their sound. So you've mentioned finding your sound, right? What does that mean to you to help your students find their sound?

Mickey Smith Jr.:  21:05
Oh, man, I think that, as I said before, sometime you can be looking and not seeing. So, so as you talk to me today, you have to understand that in elementary school, I had an acute respiratory condition and they told me the diagnosis was, he won't have proper lung function. He'll never make the basketball team. Which he made. He'll never make, be honorable mention. He'll never run in the state track meet. Which I did. He'll never be top cross country, state cross country. He'll never be a saxophone player. He'll never be a band director who now has to play all the wind instruments. You know, you look at somebody who—you know, the community I came from, they didn't have a lot of value that was staked into it. Matter of fact, and now I get it. Everybody says, you can't go home again. Means you go back and, you know, that restaurant's not there anymore, you know? You know, that business is gone. But it's few and far between that, I'm able to find people that have an experience that's akin to what I've experienced. And that is my entire town, the entirety of the town was bulldozed. And a chemical plant was built on top of it. The entire town. So before the chemical plant was built, you could literally look across 15 square miles. I don't know what Hiroshima, Nagasaki was like, and I don't wanna be disrespectful, but it makes me think if something was to drop a bomb and everything was obliterated and you could see, as far as the eye could see, my entire community was gone. You begin to understand and value community more. And I'm telling you that because I knew our community didn't have value before the bulldozer showed up. It was the way people looked at us. It was the way they talked to us. It was when you said, "I'm from Mossville, Louisiana." And if you wanna check it out, Google. Go Google it. it's a real thing. I didn't make it up. People say, Oh, Mossville. They'd be dismissive of it. Oh, Mossville. So when they shipped this little boy off to a different school, five miles away, a school where I didn't really feel like I belonged, or even I was wanted, initially. A school where I was told, "Oh man, he's not—can't put him in the gifted classes, but you know, maybe he he's a little learning deficient. Maybe he needs to be in the other spectrum of it." Now, my mom was like, we ain't having that. Ain't nothing wrong with my son. Right. But my grades were not great. I need you to understand I was a C and D student. But somebody Durlin Paul Ansalete <laugh> Army, military guy. He saw my sound. Remember, the sound's not the audible. He saw my sound. And he helped that little boy who had coincidentally, I promise you, I have this plan. I got it right here. <laugh> I got it. He saw that little boy who had the Ns and the Cs and the Ds.

Susan Lambert:  23:53
So listeners I'm looking at his report card right now. <laugh>

Mickey Smith Jr.:  23:56
I'm telling you, I promise I ain't have this plan. Just have—you know, we recently moved. So when you move, you run across stuff. And I just kind of had it sitting here, you know. I'm looking at this. They said in "Self-Discipline," "Talks too much." OK. They said in "Disruptive," you know, "Makes too much noise." In "Distracted," "Draws too much." Durlin Paul Ansalete saw a little something in me and helped redirect me. And now fast-forward, as a professional speaker, I get paid to talk too much.

Susan Lambert:  24:25

Mickey Smith Jr.:  24:26
I get paid as a musician to make too much noise. And as an author and award-winning illustrator, I get paid to draw too much. But it took somebody that was able to see that that diagnosis was not a deficiency, but it was a superpower. So again, my job as a teacher is not always to fix. I got a friend of mine that says, "Oh, we're not band directors. We're band correctors." <laugh> Because the nature of our job is "You did this wrong, you did this wrong." And that is an important element of it. But I think more than just a critique is to help that individual see who they can be. And I think all of us have that opportunity to make every day a Winsday. W I N S. That's what drives my instruction. To build it in such a way when that kid comes in, they feel like they're a success. And now they're open and more applicable to come in and try something that they wouldn't have tried before. And they can receive the criticism or the critique because I've made deposits before I tried to make a withdrawal.

Susan Lambert:  25:27
And that's for you too, all about giving kids a chance because they deserve it. Right? You talk about that a lot.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  25:33
Yeah. Every kid, no kid asked to come here. I hadn't met one yet. I hadn't met one yet that put in the formal request.

Susan Lambert:  25:41
<laugh> I wonder if you remember, or if you can recall a specific story of a kid that you actually saw completely turn around because you gave them a chance.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  25:54
Oh, absolutely. I guess if I could share one story, that was, that was so powerful, for me, it literally kept me going. There was a young girl who I taught who was very bubbly. But on the other side, how many of y'all know that everybody that's smiling ain't happy? So we always can't go by what we see. We gotta look a little deeper sometimes. Right? We have to see beyond. So this little girl smiled all the time and she came class bubbly. But on this day she did not come to class on time. That was weird for her. Like, everybody came in, she was last and not just dead last, but dragging. And she's kind of dragging in. She got her head hung low and I look at her and I'm like, Hey, I see you. And she didn't even pick her head up. So like, this is back in the day when I was young. I got down. I got down, knees didn't even crack when I got down. That time, I got down way low. I'm like, I see you, Ms. Jones. I see you. I said, put a smile on your face. I, you know, like sing a little something to it. And she kind of smirked a little bit, like a little halfway smile. And she went in the band hall, never said another word. She participated. She was a great student. But there just didn't seem to be that joy. Notice I'm picking my word carefully. I'm not talking about happiness. Time goes by. I've forgotten about, "I see you." I've forgotten about the lack of smile. I've honestly, just be real, low-key I might have even forgot about her. You know what I mean? Because you're so invested into the students you have in the present sometime they're not always on your mind, 24-7. At this point, you know, she's getting ready to graduate. Meanwhile, back at the ranch <laugh> your man was like, I'm frustrated. I'm like, teaching stinks. I'm sorry. I'm just being real with y'all. I'm like, I'm out. You know how my grandma say? I'm the head of household. I'm the primary provider. You know, I'm the man, you know, and I'm not making anything. I'm teaching! A Louisiana teacher salary back in the day was, was bleak. Right? So I'm like, man, we not making anything. I'm tired of seeing my family struggle. And I'm not really feeling the love and the respect. I'm not feeling the honor. I'm not really feeling that. Not even from society, but like even in my classroom, like, I don't even think these kids would get it. I've turned into that person that's like <grumpy voice>, "These kids!" You know, I'm like THAT dude. <laugh> So I'm like, woe is me. I'm feeling sorry for myself. Rightfully so, rightfully so. And I go home and I'm like, I'm gonna write my letter of resignation. But before I went to sit down to write it, I check the mailbox and I'm sitting down at the table. Something said, go look at that mail that you pulled out the mailbox before you write this letter. I look at the mail. I got three handwritten letters. Three handwritten letters.

Susan Lambert:  28:27

Mickey Smith Jr.:  28:27
And I open it up and there's a senior, 12th grade English teacher at the local high school that my school feeds into that makes it her assignment to challenge her graduating senior class to write a thank you letter to the one individual that was the most impactful in the entirety of their school career. pre-K through 12th grade. Teacher, coach, cafeteria worker, bus driver, custodian, administrator. Doesn't matter. Anybody. But you only can pick one. Three children, three young people, wrote me a letter. But here's the irony. And I need folks to hear this. Out of the three people that wrote me a letter, not one of them continued with band. You would think, you would think <laugh> it would've been the band students, right? But how amazing is that, that when asked, "What was the most formative, impactful, you know, inspiring, whatever you wanna call it, you know, important moment in your life, individual?" it would've been attached to a person that didn't necessarily reflect what they were going to do. Remember what I'm telling you, guys, if we out here teaching to create more people that's steeped in our content, then we need to reevaluate. Those kids said, it's not about the person who I see myself doing what they're doing. It's the person that I see myself being what they're being. So out of those three letters, I've actually kept correspondence with all these students since then. But one of the letters came from this young lady, who wrote, "Mr. Smith. When I was in eighth grade, you were always so kind. You were always so encouraging. You pushed us. You challenged us. But there was one day in particular in eighth grade, I don't know if you know this or not, but I was struggling." I don't know how many y'all know that suicide is the second-leading cause of death in our young people in this country. She said, "I was struggling and I'll never forget. There was one day in particular, I was late to your class." She said, "I felt worthless. I felt I had no value." And as she wrote it, she said, "I felt invisible. And on the day I felt invisible. You said, I see you." My mind, immediately, I didn't have to think about it. As I'm reading this, my mind immediately went back to that moment because I had never said "I see you" before then. I normally say, "Good morning, hey, how you doing?" But on that day, I remember it vividly, I said, "I see you." And I couldn't—to this day, I don't even know exactly why I felt compelled to say that, other than there was something bigger operating that moment. She said, "You said, I see you. And that got me through that day. But then it continued to keep me going." She said, "When I would go to high school and I would battle those thoughts that, Hey, if I'm not here, nobody would miss me. I don't have any value. Nobody would care," she'd say, "Nope. I know one person that would care. Mr. Smith said, I see you." And just the idea that Mr. Smith saw her was enough to keep her going through those times that could have took her out. She then went on to, you know, tell me how much she appreciated it. And by this time, I'm be honest, I'm crying. And I'm not even like the cry dude. <laugh> But I'm crying and I'm crying. Like those fat teardrops. Y'all know what I'm talking about. Like I still got the letter, but it's all smeared up. I done cried all over the letter. I'm like, Ah, I'm just wipin' my nose. It's bad. But it's good. And some lady came to me one day after I shared that with the group. And she said, "Mickey, that story is amazing, but you don't get it." And I'm like, what? I'm thinking, like, it's my story. How you gonna tell me I don't get it? Right? Like I'm feeling some kind of way! So she says, she says, "What's amazing about that is when that little girl was at her lowest, your words were everything she needed to keep on going. Little did you know that when you'd be at your lowest, sitting at that table, writing your letter of resignation, her words would come back to be everything you needed to keep on going." Because after I read that letter, I tore up my letter of resignation and I went back to work. Little did I know just a few short years later, I'd be at the Grammys holding the hand of Alicia Keys, hearing her say to me, "We need you." In essence, she was talking to me, but I feel like she was talking to all of us. And I'm like, I'm looking, I'm thinking, Man, where were you about five years ago? You know? But thank goodness <laugh> before Alicia Keys spoke it, Ms. Jones spoke it. And the crazy thing is coincidentally, just before I went to go get the Grammy, I turned on the news. The first baby that was born in the state of Louisiana was born to this amazing, beautiful couple. And that young lady, her mother was that little girl who had grown up. And now I can't help but think, watching the TV, what are the odds that the year I would go get the Grammy, I would watch this little girl that said, "Mr. Smith, you said 'I see you.'" And I'd be able to see her now, raising her family, bringing more life, bringing more value into this world. I'm just telling you. We may not know. We may not know the fullness of our significance until the weight of time is on, until the weight of eternity is on. There may be some things that we just never know. But I need you to keep on going wherever you're at, because we matter more than we realize. We need you. We need you today.

Singing voice:  33:44
Never could imagine how far my life would go. Everybody's out here talking 'bout this world is gone. Natural disaster is the pathway you know. Meanwhile I'm playing my song. This is serve, love, teach, and keep going. Come on.

Susan Lambert:  34:08
Wow. That's powerful. Powerful story. And it's a good segue into this idea of you really starting now to extend your reach and your message, because you've talked a little bit about you being a motivational speaker. I had no idea wrote a book and illustrated a book. That's pretty cool. You have a podcast. Like what's that motivation that keeps you continuing on to extend and extend and extend this reach?

Mickey Smith Jr.:  34:37
Well, you know, I think we're only as good as the circle that we have. Right? I think that having good people in our corner helps us to be motivated, but it also has that level of accountability that allows us to continue to grow. Right? And I think that who you surround yourself with becomes a mirror for you that ultimately creates a window because you can't really have perspective if you first don't have awareness. Right? Right? So, so I said all that to say, I have some great mirrors in my life. People that tell me what I don't want to hear a lot of times! And a few years back, I was living the dream. I had a well-oiled machine at my school I was at, and it was rocking and rolling. And honestly, probably could even put it on autopilot and it still would've been effective, because the systems of operations—and these are a lot of things I teach, particularly, not just with music educators, but we talk about professional development, classroom management, a lot of my work has now been featured by folks like Dr. Harry Wong and different folks that I grew up admiring—um, so there were systems in place that were incredibly effective and produced some great things. But I had a friend of mine pull on my coattail, so to speak. And he was like, Yeah, so when you leaving? I said, "What you mean?" He was like, When you're in that classroom, he said, you're being selfish right now. I'm like what? I said, "I'm teaching my kids." He's—I'm like, that's the most unselfish thing I can do! He was like, Nah, bro, you're being selfish. He says, "Because right now you're affecting that level of change or growth in 150 kids, 200 kids tops, right? Every child that walks into your classroom, affecting change. And even from a campus standpoint, he was like, I won't even, I won't even diminish you, man. He was like, really? You helped change the culture of that entire campus. So let's just say straight up 300, 330 kids you're affecting, he says, but that's it. He says, I need you to go Google it one day. He was like, go look and see how many schools are in the United States. Now I'm being honest. I don't retain that. I don't remember, but I went and Googled it. I was like, whoa, that's a lot of schools. He said, he says, but when you go out and you share your gift with other teachers and you encourage them and you allow them to see the gift that they have in themselves, not to preach or teach anybody, but just to remind them that they have a sound, now you're empowering them to have exponential growth on the profession because for every teacher you affect, now they impact X number of students, and that other teacher, X number. So he sold it real good. And I'm like, yeah, but I still wanna be in my classroom...but things, things begin happening. I begin to get connected with incredible folks like Dr. Eric Thomas, who's an amazing motivational speaker. He does a lot of work with, with NBA, NFL, and schools, and just fantastic person. And he began to put a challenge on my life too. And I began taking those first steps and now I'm presenting myself and positioning myself as an individual that is more than just a speaker or a consultant. But I see myself as an "educator encourager" now more than ever. I wanna share some of the things that helped encourage me to keep going so that someone else won't miss their next and best steps. And I'm doing that now through my Keep On Going tour, I'm traveling the country. We've got well over 40 stops this year, across North America, US and Canada. And I'm taking a motivational mixture of music and message, and I'm pouring it onto stages for conferences and into boardrooms with leadership, into classrooms with teachers and even on stages with—I have a educator-based concert that I wrote, music specifically for educators. So if you ever go on iTunes or Spotify and you click Mickey Smith Jr. "See the Sound," you'll find that album that you can put in before you hit the classroom, that'll hopefully encourage you and inspire you.

Susan Lambert:  38:24
That's amazing. We will link our listeners in the show notes to all of those resources that you're talking about, but that's so cool. And you know, the common theme—you probably know this, but I'm listening to this common theme that's running through your experiences and you have always been open to listening to those messages people are telling you, open to feedback. So you have some good people around you that are speaking into your life.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  38:49
Yeah. You have to, you absolutely have to. No person is an island. I always like to say, "This life's better when we band together." It may be corny—I'm a band director—but it's true. I think life is ensemble. Matter of fact, I tell my kids, you can't even have the word "band" without the word "and."

Susan Lambert:  39:08
Oh, beautiful.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  39:09
You can't, you can't. No one person's an island. No one person was meant to play a solo. Life is better when we band together.

Susan Lambert:  39:16
I love that. I love that. And now I'm actually gonna ask you to play a solo though, because <laugh> we've heard so much about finding your sound, and so we would love if you could share some of your sound and a musical message with our listeners.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  39:34
Absolutely. I'd be honored. And this song is actually one that I wrote based on the story about the young girl and another student; I blended two stories together. And it just challenges all, hopefully today that are listening, to take the call to action. Let us be the sound to change the world.

Singing voice:  40:16
Can you hear the sound? The heartbeat of that motherless child? As we search for love, we all need warmth. Love. Smile. See, there's a sound that is so sweet when we hear, "Child you belong." So let our words of love flow freely like a river stronghold. And let us be the sound to change the world. Let us be the sound to change the world. Let us be the sound to change the world. Let us be. Let us be. Listen. Can you hear the sound? The heartbeat of that motherless child? As we search for love, we all need the warmth. Love. A smile. See, there's a sound that is so sweet when we hear, "Child, you belong." So let our words of love flow freely like a river stronghold. Think I play the song. <instrumental music> Let us be the sound to change the world. Won't you be that sound? To change the world. Whoa, let us be that sound to change the world. Whoa, let us be. Whoa, let us be. <instrumental music>

Mickey Smith Jr.:  43:35
Let us be the sound.

Susan Lambert:  43:36
That's beautiful.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  43:37
And the good news is we all, we all got a sound. We all have a sound, no matter how small, how big. And the cool thing is, our sound is always sweeter to those that hear it than for us. It's just like our own voice. <laugh> We're never comfortable hearing our own sound. And your sound is like the fruit on a tree. I've never seen a tree eat its own fruit. Never. Because the fruit was never designed for the tree to enjoy. So I wanted to challenge everybody under the sound of my voice today to take time, to find your sound. And then once you find it, understand that it is a gift. Again, a gift is only a gift when it's given. So go out there and make your classroom sound, your teaching epic, and your legacy will definitely be significant.

Susan Lambert:  44:18
Mickey, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you for the work that you're doing. It's been such a privilege.

Mickey Smith Jr.:  44:24
Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

Susan Lambert:  44:26
Thanks for listening and keep your feedback coming. Want to learn more? Be sure to stay connected by subscribing to your favorite podcast app and join our Facebook discussion group Science of Reading: The Community.