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Teaching Bruins with service at heart

Amy Daniel is a Western Branch native who has been recognized for her success as a teacher at Western Branch Middle School — the same school she attended herself.

Daniel is an eighth-grade history teacher at Western Branch Middle School and the faculty sponsor for the Student Council Association. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at Western Branch Middle School this school year and is currently a finalist for citywide Teacher of the Year for Chesapeake Public Schools.

She started teaching in 1997 at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach and is now in her fifth year of teaching at WBMS.

She grew up in the Point Elizabeth neighborhood close by the school, and when she was attending the middle school, she had classes in the same room that she teaches in today, she said.

Daniel said she always loved the idea of teaching. She grew up reading books about teachers and grading papers with her father, the late Theodore “Ted” Smith Jr.

Her father, a Portsmouth native, taught at WBMS from 1990 until his retirement in 2007. He taught at Portsmouth and Chesapeake public schools for 37 years, and he coached the boys’ basketball team at Western Branch Middle School for more than 20 years.

He stopped coaching in 2015 due to his kidney cancer and died later that year. But his children keep the family’s standard of teaching excellence alive at WBMS, including Daniel’s brother, Kevin Smith, who is a physical education teacher at WBMS. His children also attend there.

Dr. Kambar Khoshaba, the school principal, established the Ted Smith Scholar Athlete Award after his death, which is awarded to one outstanding student each year for excelling in academics, athletics and character.

“For me, seeing his face here, (and) seeing the kids that I teach get that award in his honor, allows me to feel closer not only to him, but to the community in which I grew up and worked in, so it’s a blessing,” Daniel said.
Daniel believes a good teacher motivates students and meets them where they are to understand and nurture them. This helps build positive relationships that help guide them toward success. Building those relationships is what Daniel enjoys the most about teaching, as well as seeing them succeed over the years.

“I keep up with kids that I taught 15, 16, 17 years ago. It’s truly amazing to me to see them grow,” Daniel said.
She said it’s humbling to receive the Teacher of the Year award at her school, and that’s mostly because it doesn’t feel like work for her.

“Honestly, it’s very humbling, because this is not a job to me. This is something that I do because I absolutely love it, and I feel blessed to come here every day and do this,” she said. “I don’t see it as a job, so to get this kind of award and this acknowledgement for the work that I do is absolutely humbling and incredible.”

She credits Khoshaba for his mentorship, and the principal in turn credits Daniel for helping the school achieve award-winning excellence. Western Branch Middle School was honored with a 2019 National Council of Excellence Award by the National Student Council, which awards student councils for implementing strong leadership programs, functioning in ethical and responsible ways, and engaging others in leadership, spirit, civic and service activities, according to natstuco.org.

It’s the first year that Western Branch Middle School has won the award, Khoshaba said, and they were also the only middle school in Virginia to receive the award. He said it was a “huge honor” made possible by fantastic kids who have service in their hearts and a desire to help others.

“But make no mistake about it, you can have a wet ball of clay, but you have to have an artist that can make the artwork, and we have the artist who I think is going to be the Teacher of the Year for the city,” Khoshaba said.
Western Branch Middle School’s Student Council Association currently has 18 students, Daniel said. They work together to be a unified voice, “so that they can actually work with teachers and administration to be the voice of other students on issues,” Daniel said.

However, their main role is to provide service.

“SCA is a service organization,” Daniel said. “They’re doing community things through our school.”

For their latest service project, SCA wanted to send a positive message to students in their school that come from military families.

“The students and I both agreed that it’s very difficult for children of military families to go from school to school to school, so we wanted something that when they walked in our building, they could look and say, ‘OK, we’ve got you. We know you’re here and we celebrate what you and your family do for us, and the sacrifice that you make for us,’” Daniel said.

The SCA students once again worked with Myke Irving, the artist who made the colorful heron sculpture that now stands outside of the middle school. WBMS SCA sponsored that sculpture as part of the Blue Heron Project, a city of Chesapeake community initiative.

The SCA students fundraised and collaborated for their “Tribute to the Military” project, a permanent art installation inside the school. The piece is a ceiling-to-floor mural of a serviceperson and the school’s Bruin Bear mascot saluting the American Flag. The flag itself is a five-panel piece of artwork, with three panels made of aluminum and two of acrylic. The individual panels are raised from the wall at different heights to create the appearance that the flag is waving.

“We wanted the kids that walk in this building that are new — and the kids that are already here — to know that we appreciate you, and we value you, and this is a permanent testament to that,” according to Daniel.

It was important for WBMS SCA to recognize students with military families, and the truly amazing work that their family members do for their country, according to Ashley Lauster, a 13-year-old WBMS eighth-grader and the SCA president.

Ashley comes from a military family, as well, and she said it felt good to do a service project that recognizes military service members.

“It made us all feel special, that we knew how much they were doing for us,” she said.

Daniel is proud of her students, and their excitement at being part of something bigger than themselves.

“I honestly can say that I am so amazed that they can think outside of themselves and look at something bigger to be a part of, and they do that on a regular basis,” she said.

She said that she’s “found her people” in her amazing school, and in the Western Branch community.

“I’m just very proud of the community that I grew up in, and I’m happy that I can serve and do this and just keep it going in this community, because it is a part of me,” she said.