Debby Smith sits in her kindergarten classroom Thursday at South School. She will retire at the end of this school year after 24 years.

MOUNT CARMEL — Boxes of classroom materials are being packed and the last year at South Elementary School is coming to a close.

But kindergarten teacher Debby Smith won’t be joining her boxes in a classroom at the newly-named Mount Carmel Elementary School. She is retiring, after 24 years of inspiring young minds.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Smith said. “I know it’s time to retire, but in a way, it’s kind of sad too because I will miss my kids, I’ll miss the teachers I’ve worked with and all the teachers at South School.”

Smith said one of her favorite parts about teaching kindergarten is students being so excited to learn.

“Every day in kindergarten is different — everything you tell these kids they get so excited about it,” she laughed. “One of my kids just asked me what the last number was and I said ‘There is no last number,’ and he said ‘Well, a million!’ and I said ‘A million and one!’ So we had this big discussion about infinity. You never know what you’re going to talk about! Every day is different.”

Just like how every day is different, every child is different. Smith has found that children entering kindergarten have a variety of learning levels.

“Everybody comes in at a different place. Some kids come in reading, some kids come in not knowing colors or how to count,” she said. “You have such a wide span in kindergarten kids — no other grade has such a wide span of kids.”

Technology has evolved during Smith’s 24 years, and she said some careers kids will have in the future haven’t even been thought of yet.

“When I started teaching, South School didn’t have computers. Then when we got computers the kids didn’t know how to use them so we had to teach them. But now when they come in they have their own tablets and they can do anything on a computer that they want to do,” she said. “It’s just amazing how computers are just a part of their everyday life.”

Over the course of her teaching career at South, Smith has taught more than 520 students.

“The kids have been awesome — it’s amazing how many kids have came through here,” she said. “I pray every year that I would have some sort of influence on their lives in a positive way, and I know that God gives me these kids for a reason.”

Since Mount Carmel is such a small town, she continues to run into her former students all the time.

“One of my greatest joys is to be at Taco (Tierra) or something, and a big ole young man comes up to me who’s like a head taller than I am and he goes ‘You don’t know who I am,’ and a lot of the times I do,” she smiled. “You do become very attached to them and it’s hard to let them go.”

Smith attended the University of Kentucky, where she met her husband, and Western Kentucky University. She and her family moved to Mount Carmel 35 years ago, and “it’s home.” One of the reasons she didn’t retire sooner is because of all the love and affection she gets not only from her students, but her coworkers at South.

“The last couple of years with my husband passing away, I’ve had a lot going on and South School has been so supportive of me,” she said.

And the relationship has been mutually beneficial.

“Mrs. Smith is a dedicated teacher that has worked hard to help her children succeed,” said South Elementary School Principal Sheila Odom. “I have been very lucky to work with Mrs. Smith these last four years.”

During retirement, Smith plans to spend time with her two granddaughters that live in Tennessee, volunteer with her church, travel with her friends, and attend obedience school with her 1-year-old Golden Retriever, Murphy.

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