Triple threat: Sisterly love finds meaning in Tempe classroom

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Lauren, Ashley and Erica Smeltzer, from left, often referred to as Smeltzer #3, Smeltzer #2 and Smeltzer #1, show off their signature red T-shirts that set the teaching sisters apart at Ward Traditional Academy. –Photos courtesy Tempe Elementary School District

By Robyn Martinez

You might do a triple-take when you visit Ward Traditional Academy and check out the list of classroom teachers. No, they’re not triplets, but let’s just say Smeltzer 1, Smeltzer 2, and Smeltzer 3 are common phrases you will hear if you visit the Tempe school where three sisters teach in triplicate, sort of.

Since the start of this school year, Erica, Ashley, and Lauren Smeltzer are all teachers at Ward Traditional Academy. Ashley started at Ward eight years ago and encouraged Erica to apply the following year. When a teaching position opened up for this school year, they both encouraged Lauren to apply. Erica, the oldest, and Lauren, the youngest, both teach first-grade and have connecting classrooms. Ashley, the middle sister, teaches second-grade a few doors down.

“It feels great knowing that I always have someone at school to help me out, especially since this is my first year teaching,” said Lauren. “It’s nice that we can always say good morning, check-in throughout the day, and say good night at the end of the day.”

Their journey to become teachers didn’t start out like most. Each sister was rather determined to do something other than teaching in a classroom. Erica obtained her undergraduate degree in exercise science, and while spending time in a preschool classroom for her thesis, realized that teaching was her calling. She went back and earned a master’s degree in education. Lauren started her undergraduate degree as a nursing major, then switched to education after an experience that allowed her to see how easy it was for her to help a young student quickly learn the alphabet. Ashley always knew that education was where she was called but not always in a teacher role. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a career in educational law.

“We all realized at different points that teaching felt like home, and came as second nature to us, thanks to growing up with a mom who was a teacher,” said Erica.

Their mother, Karen Smeltzer, taught elementary school for over 30 years in the Kyrene School District. She worked in partnership with Arizona State University during the pilot of the well-renowned “iTeach” student-teacher program. The girls attribute many of their teaching techniques to her.

“We grew up helping in the classroom, but when the time comes to choose your career, you try so hard to be different from your family,” said Erica. “However, teaching was where our hearts were. It wasn’t a shock to us what we were getting into.”

Being sisters means that they share a lot in common – especially in their teaching style. It’s known to most in the Ward community that the Smeltzer sisters have a strict teaching style, but that it pays off for their students. Especially for students and families who have now had all three sisters as a teacher, including children in the Toennies family.

“My oldest daughter, Mya, has been very motivated by the Smeltzer sisters’ teaching style. They incorporate a lot of technology and creativity. They are known to be more strict but accomplish so much in the classroom, and the kids learn a lot,” said parent Robin Toennies. “You can tell they all put a lot of energy into the kids and education, making it a great learning experience.”

In addition to their similar teaching style, they also share similar fashion.

“Sometimes we come to school in the same outfit. We’ve learned to text each other in the morning to let the others know what we’re wearing so we don’t always match,” Ashley said.

When they aren’t busy teaching at the same school, Erica and Ashley coach the middle school soccer team together, and Lauren has plans to join next year. Erica said that thankfully, when it comes to coaching, they go by their first names.

Having three individuals with the same last name can be confusing, especially for parents in the Ward community. The sisters all agree that they work together to make sure information gets to who it needs to get to, and they are grateful for the unique opportunity they have to all work together.

“It’s so great knowing you always have someone to support you, and someone who will always have your back no matter what,” Ashley said.

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