For Andover teacher Dyane Smokorowski, the road to inspiring others started with believing in herself.
Smokorowski—winner of the 2015 national Chasing Rainbows Award—grew up in a home where her dream of becoming a teacher could easily have been sidetracked. her father suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depressive illness.
“I grew up in a house where mental illness kind of reigned, but education was always a priority,” she said. “A very tumultuous place to live in the midst of trying to find normalcy.”
“We moved around a lot,” explained Smokorowski, 43, who split her childhood between Kansas and Indiana. “We lost a few homes through the years.”
Her father, she said, could not control his spending when manic or his emotions when depressed. “Through all of that chaos, there was the idea that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.
Part of her dedication to that goal came from a source that might sound like a cliche if it wasn’t true—Disney.
In high school, she remembers watching a television show honoring teachers that was sponsored by Disney.
“I thought if I’m going to be a teacher, I want to be one of those teachers. That’s the role model I want.” In college, she did an internship at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, then worked for the Disney store in Towne East Mall while finishing her education degree at Wichita State University.
“With Disney, the idea was to bring a little bit of magic into everybody’s life.”
Now Smokorowski brings magic—meaning wonder and excitement—into her work with students and teachers in Andover and beyond. About to start her 19th year as an educator, she serves as instructional technology coach for Andover Public Schools, a role in which she works with both teachers and students.
“I help teachers dream big: how can we do large impacting projects that include technology for students?” she said.
Last year, for example, she mentored middle-school teachers who were guiding sixth- and seventh- grade students through a year-long project focused on the importance of clean water. It wasn’t just an academic exercise: one goal was to prove clean water for students in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The Andover and Kenya students communicated through Skype, as did students in Pennsylvania and Greece who were also involved. The project, headed by Andover middle school teacher Stacey Ryan, raised enough money and donations to provide water filtration devices for two schools and 333 homes in Kenya.
Another project: working with a group of gifted eighth-grade social students at Andover Central Middle School who are conducting a two-year Unsung Kansas hero project to identify people who impacted education, civil rights and the aerospace industry but are not well known.
Smokorowski preaches the power of Skype in the classroom as a way of conducting research, fostering cultural exchanges and getting the chance to question experts wherever they are. A recent project called “Squiggles of Awesome” challenged students to download an image and expand it into an original work of art that would communicate something without the barrier of language. hundreds of students across the country and even in China participated, then connected and exchanged their work via Skype.
Kenton Criser, a member of Andover high’s Class of 2015, got to know “Mrs. Smoke” (as students call her) when she was teaching an eighth-grade language arts class. Criser said she taught him how to put various skills into research projects, improved his public speaking with weekly improvisational exercises and helped his whole class dream big: Students raised money and classroom materials for an orphanage in Nigeria so that it could start a school of its own. Smokorowski “inspired me to do great things in my own community, school and church” Criser wrote in a letter recommending her for the Chasing Rainbows Award.
Smokorowski was named Kansas’ Teacher of the Year in 2013. In that role she traveled the state with other finalists for the honor, doing over 200 speaking engagements. but she hadn’t shared the story about her own challenging upbringing until convinced to do so by the previous winner of the Chasing Rainbows Award, New Hampshire teacher Heidi Welch.
“I didn’t want the past to explain where I was today,” Smokorowski said. She eventually realized she couldn’t tell her true story without telling all of it. “The story is that even though life was a dark, dark place, I knew that education was a way out.”
As a teacher, she said, “Every child comes with a different story. Some of those are great, and some are a little more challenging. That somebody could see there’s life on the other side of that, I really try to exemplify that.”
The Chasing Rainbows Award is presented annually by country music superstar Dolly Parton to a teacher who has overcome adversity to become an educator. It’s voted on by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and winners get a weekend trip to Dollywood with their guests.
Smokorowski took along her husband, Kevin, and son, Paul, who’s 16 and will be a senior at Andover this year. She called Parton “awesome.” Told that attending the award ceremony meant Paul had to miss the Andover prom, Parton said, “You know, I never went to my prom either. Tell you what, we will be each other’s prom date” and put his arm around her for photographs.
Her other guest was her mother, Linda Dietz, to whom Smokorowski dedicated the award.
“It’s as much her honor as anyone else,” Smokorowski said. “She survived all of that as well and has become one of the most remarkable people on this planet. Together, we made it.”