Mary Schmidt almost didn’t become a teacher.

After becoming “disillusioned” about teaching during her college student teaching, she considered changing career choices. But then the Peace Corps visited her college and after graduating, she left for Africa. Her experience in Africa led her to teach English as a second language, or ESOL. Now having taught for 20 years, she was recently recognized by the state for her achievements in teaching the subject.

Mary Schmidt, center, poses in a photo with ESOL students, from left, Maria Zavala, Maria Baron, Laura Gallegos, Anabel Sala-Valladares and Joceyln Romero. (Special)

Schmidt, who has been teaching at Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs for 15 years, was recognized as a Georgia Department of Education STAR ESOL teacher in May. She was one of 10 teachers recognized statewide and was nominated by Riverwood senior Anh Tran, according to a press release.

She also started a program called Steam Camp that allows Lake Forest Elementary ESOL 5th graders to visit Riverwood on Saturdays to experience attending high school classes.

“These students have many [hurdles] they must overcome, but to be inspired at an early age is important and memorable,” Schmidt said.

Q: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

A: I wanted to be a CBS reporter or a missionary to Germany, but my school counselor said they did not have missionaries in Germany and only men were CBS reporters. I loved playing school and loved children, so I decided to be a teacher. I also had a great PE teacher in middle school who inspired me and a third grade teacher who said I could do anything I wanted if I wanted it. She is the one who taught me to read!

Q: What drew you to teach ESOL?

A: After graduating in three years from university and having a less impressive student teaching experience, I was very disillusioned about teaching. I was not sure what I was going to do, and the last month before I was to graduate, the Peace Corps came to my university campus to recruit for the program. I signed up and told them I wanted to go to Africa. I believe it was meant to be because I graduated in June and in August I was in Sierra Leone, West Africa. I taught science and did teacher training while I was in Peace Corps. The experiences of Peace Corps led me to ESOL teaching.

Schmidt accepts an award from the Georgia Department of Education alongside (left to right) Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods, Riverwood senior and ESOL student Anh Tran and Riverwood Principal Charles Gardner. (Special)

Q: What was your response when you learned you won the award?

A: Astonished, dazed. I read the email five times out loud in my classroom — no one was present — crying and laughing, wondering how it happened.

Q: What do you want to see in your students?

A: I hope that their dreams and aspirations come true in their new country! I wish them all the happiness, contentment and success in their lives.

Q: What are you most proud of in your career?

A: My students who are not giving up on their dreams and having fun living them! I have empowered them to have confidence in themselves and strive to find what makes them successful and happy even through the tough times!

All the ESOL students who came to this country, most of the time not by choice, learned English and were able to graduate from high school and went on being great people.

One ESOL student was told that she would not be able to go to university, but perhaps to go to a junior college. I explained to her to follow her dreams. She and I worked on her applying to many universities. She was accepted to UGA where [she] obtained her BA and MBA. She is now working for an accountant firm!

Q: What do you hope students learn from you?

A: I hope through my modeling of “paying it forward” to others that it will become part of their behavior. It is important for me to teach them to be kind and help others. Thinking out of the box and being adventurous.

Also, at the beginning of each school year, I always say to my class that there are three rules in my classroom: there is no lying, stealing and cheating in my classroom and just be honest with me. I also hope that these ethical issues are learned by my students in developing their character!