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Inspired NCO spends career molding Airmen

Tech. Sgt. Joshua Smith, 22nd Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School instructor, goes over a lesson with a classroom of students, Feb. 29, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Smith has dedicated almost half of his career to educating and training Airmen, first as a military training instructor at Basic Military Training and now as an ALS instructor for McConnell AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Victor J. Caputo)

Tech. Sgt. Joshua Smith, 22nd Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School instructor, goes over a lesson with a classroom of students, Feb. 29, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Smith has dedicated almost half of his career to educating and training Airmen, first as a military training instructor at Basic Military Training and now as an ALS instructor for McConnell AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Victor J. Caputo)

Then-Staff Sgt. Joshua Smith, 326th Training Squadron military training instructor, speaks to a trainee going through Basic Military Training, April 2010, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Smith served as an MTI for four years before moving to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and eventually becoming an Airman Leadership School instructor. (Courtesy photo)

Then-Staff Sgt. Joshua Smith, 326th Training Squadron military training instructor, speaks to a trainee going through Basic Military Training, April 2010, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Smith served as an MTI for four years before moving to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and eventually becoming an Airman Leadership School instructor. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Joshua Smith was 17 years old and starting to earn a reputation for skipping his math class every afternoon when he was called into his guidance counselor's office. The most surprising part of the meeting for Smith was seeing his visibly distressed mother in the office.

"My mom was on the verge of tears because they were so close to kicking me out for missing so many days of school," said Smith, now a technical sergeant and Airman Leadership School instructor for the 22nd Force Support Squadron almost 15 years later.

The guidance counselor tried to figure out the cause of the situation, and Smith explained that there was very little learning happening in class. Instead, the teacher was allowing students to cheat and copy off of each other with no consequences.

"The teachers were choosing which rules they want to follow, so I was picking rules too. The guidance counselor told me, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,'" said Smith.

The shock of having an adult, let alone a guidance counselor, tell a young Smith to cheat was the final push he needed to make up his mind about joining the military.

He had loved jets and planes since he was a child, so he decided that the Air Force was the branch for him. Just a short time after graduating high school, Smith was on his way to Basic Military Training.

He went to BMT with an open general aptitude slot, but was selected for the aerospace ground equipment Air Force Specialty Code. Fresh-faced and excited to learn, Smith was assigned to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, and immediately fell in love with his job. The flip-side that he discovered shortly after being in the "operational" Air Force was seemingly a lack of standards and discipline all around him.

"I refused to be one of the people that sits there and complains about a lack of discipline," he said. "I'm going to be one of the people that if I see it, I'm going to do something about it."

2008 saw Smith act on his words when he returned to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, this time to earn his campaign hat as a military training instructor and begin molding trainees into Airmen through BMT.

"I absolutely loved it," said Smith. "You end up caring so much about how the trainees are doing that you won't let yourself accept anything less than perfect."

Smith pushed hundreds of new Airmen into the Air Force during his tour as an MTI, and he sought to put his own "signature" on each one. The high standards he held himself to were passed down to his trainees, and it wasn't the sense of power that kept him going through the 20-hour days he often pulled, it was the feeling of satisfaction when he saw everything come together for these fresh Airmen, he said.

Those same high standards that made Smith so at home in the BMT environment did not make the transition back to the "operational" Air Force at McConnell the smoothest, though.

"If you do something for four years of your life, it's going to stay with you," said Smith. "I said to myself that I need to be self-aware, try to get other people's perspectives and understand what I'm going back into. But walking back into the 'operational' Air Force, that wasn't enough."

Smith soon found himself looking back on small interactions he had with Airmen around base and thinking how ineffective some of his corrections were. The tactics that were so heavily used in BMT weren't having the desired effect as he adjusted to McConnell.

"Honestly, it's a very difficult transition to live in [the MTI] world for four years and come back to the 'real' Air Force," said Master Sgt. Rachael Hall, 22nd Force Support Squadron Airman Leadership School commandant. "His transition back into his unit was a little difficult for him."

After two years back in his career field AGE, Smith's leadership approached him about a job opening in the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Thomas N. Barnes ALS on base. Smith had always thought being an ALS instructor would be fun, but never seriously considered it until that moment.

He quickly began putting together a package and preparing for the new job, but he first had to be interviewed by Hall.

"I was little worried initially because he seemed so perfect," said Hall. "What I found out was that his personality is completely different. He loves to laugh; he loves to make jokes. He was definitely the right pick for this job."

Smith spent a short time shadowing ALS instructors to learn how the job was done and committed himself to thoroughly learning the lesson plans before he actually taught a class. He immediately began to bring the same discipline and high standards that have guided him throughout his career into the professional military education environment.

"He was rather intimidating our first couple of days of class," said Senior Airman Kiani Ebuen, 22nd Maintenance Group maintenance operations scheduler. "His uniform was pressed; he had a high and tight haircut and not a string or wrinkle in sight. We were more intrigued by an instructor who not only implements rules and lessons but follows them as well. We could all just read the material on our own and then take the test, but Tech. Sgt. Smith engraved these lessons and tools into us where we could use them to better ourselves as a future supervisor in the Air Force and as individuals as well."

His role as a different kind of instructor let Smith see a more direct impact of his teachings and allowed him to help instill confidence in Team McConnell's newest NCOs.

"As an NCO, I owe it to my Airmen, not just to myself and the Air Force, to make sure they're doing it right," said Smith. "I never want to ignore the Airmen, never put off their problems or put a Band-Aid solution on it, never tell them to cut corners to get ahead. Everything that guidance counselor did not do, I made a promise that I will do that for the Airmen."