An Ottawa County educator known for making first-time students feel at ease in school and for helping them discover that learning is fun has been honored with an Excellence in Education award from the Michigan Lottery.
The award winner, Blake Smolen, works with kindergarten-age students as a transitional-kindergarten teacher at the Jenison Early Childhood Center, which is part of the Jenison Public Schools. He also serves as a coach for the Jenison freshman baseball team, an eighth grade basketball team, and for varsity football at a Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids.
The Michigan Lottery established the Excellence in Education awards in 2014 to recognize outstanding public school educators across the state during the school year.
Winners of the weekly award receive a plaque, a $500 cash prize, and a $500 grant to their classroom, school or school district. One of the weekly winners will be selected as the Educator of the Year and will receive a $10,000 cash prize.
Each winner also is featured in a news segment on the Lottery’s media partner stations: WXYZ-TV in Detroit, FOX 17 in Grand Rapids, and FOX 47 in Lansing. The news segment featuring Smolen will air this evening in Grand Rapids and Lansing and then on Thursday in Detroit.
For the Excellence in Education awards program, the Lottery has teamed up with Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo, who recently presented Smolen with the award at the Breslin Center.
Smolen said he’s a third-generation educator. His mother was a speech pathologist and his grandfather was a physical education teacher and coach.
“I love that I’m able to teach and coach and interact with students of many ages. I also love the fact that I have the ability to be a positive male role model for kids who might not have one. I focus on showing students at a young age that learning can be fun,” he said.
“My students motivate me to make that extra effort each day. I know that if I’m not giving them that extra effort, then they won’t be motivated to give me their all.”
The Excellence in Education award nomination for Smolen described his “enthusiasm and love for teaching.”
“His drive, enthusiasm and spirit are infectious. Every day in his classroom is an adventure for students to learn more, meet new people, and to have a great time. You wouldn’t expect a former college football player to be as genuine and as goofy as he is. Every month, when hot dogs are served for lunch, Mr. Smolen dresses up in a hot dog costume and runs through the cafeteria, dancing and getting the students excited,” the nomination said.
“In his classroom, he draws a cartoon of the animal of the week and for each holiday he draws a mural to match! He dresses up every holiday, plus Spirit Day and 100th Day of School. He sings, uses voices when he reads and really makes the students feel at ease in his room. Many of his students are away from their parents for the first time and it’s their first time in school. Mr. Smolen calms their nerves, makes them feel safe, happy, and excited to learn.”
Smolen earned two degrees from Grand Valley State University: a bachelor’s degree in psychology with an emphasis in special education and a master’s degree in educational leadership. Smolen, who was a member of the Grand Valley State football team for five years, has been an educator for six years, the last five with the Jenison Public Schools.
Excellence in Education award nominees are evaluated on the following criteria:
- Excellence – Their work consistently helps students and/or their schools or school districts advance to higher levels of academic achievement.
- Dedication – They consistently go above and beyond expectations to help students succeed.
- Inspiration – Their work inspires others around them to exceed expectations either academically or professionally.
- Leadership – They demonstrate clear leadership skills in their positions with their school or school districts.
- Effectiveness – The nominee’s work has clear and positive results on the educational advancement of students within the school or school district.