Teacher of the Year: Strong connections lead to success
Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal says creating a supportive community and providing opportunities for all students is key to their learning and future success.
“I believe developing meaningful relationships is critical to student success, and encourages a lifelong love of learning,” Neal said. “Building relationships is the key to eliminating bias and moving forward in growth.”
Neal is a self-contained special education teacher at Maryvale High School in the Phoenix Union High School District. For 21 years, he has taught students with moderate to severe cognitive delays to access academic content through modified curriculum so they can perform independently and productively at home, school and in the community. Neal has a Master’s degree in special education and extensive training in applied behavior analysis and sensory integration techniques.
“I feel that if you have everyone connected that everyone will feel like a family and the learning environment will be that much better,” Neal said. “I also think that a connected classroom means that the students will help each other learn. I think that’s a very important tool, particularly when you’re in classrooms where students have different ability levels.”
Neal also serves as a Professional Learning Community leader in the district. He has developed the curriculum the district uses for every subject in self-contained special education classes. He is also the sponsor of the school’s diversity club and the vice-president of the Phoenix Union High School District’s Black Alliance.
Neal has received the National Education Association’s Diversity Grant, the Maryvale Revitalization Committee’s Educator Excellence Award and Maryvale High School’s Teacher of the Year honor.
Arizona Educational Foundation Video: 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year and Ambassadors for Excellence:
Q: What made you become a teacher?
A: I kind of lucked into it while I was an undergrad student at Seton Hall University. I was a chemical engineering major at the time. I was at a Special Olympics event and fell in love with the kids. I loved how they did not behave in ways to please others or look good. They just lived their truth.
Q: What is most rewarding about working with your students?
A: The most rewarding part of working with my students is how we have formed a family type of atmosphere. You know the feeling that people have when they spend Thanksgiving or some other holiday with their families? I feel that every day.
Q: What is most challenging about being a teacher?
A: It is a job where you have to be highly educated, responsible, professional and hard working, but it is not respected like most professional jobs. I have actually had people come up to me and ask me if I was a professional basketball player. I’m 6’7″. When I reply that I am a teacher, they say things like, “If I were that tall…” or “Do you coach basketball?” I couldn’t imagine that same level of disrespect for a doctor, lawyer or businessman/woman. For a profession that is so important, it seems like we aren’t treated like we do something honorable very often. That is pretty frustrating.
Q: What is the most important education issue in Arizona today? Why? And how should it be addressed?
A: As a state we need to focus on teacher retention. We have far too many unqualified teachers in classrooms due to certified/highly qualified teachers leaving. In the past three years, teacher certifications have gone down significantly, and there has been a constant increase of unqualified teachers being put into classrooms. This isn’t the way. We need to respect our teachers and pay them – really pay them. It won’t happen overnight, but that is the way to lure qualified teachers back into our classrooms.
Q: What would you say to students considering teaching as a career?
A: I would tell them that every day I go to work I get the opportunity to change the world, while having a great time interacting with young adults. I would also tell them that they will never feel as proud and accomplished as the first time they help a student through a difficult academic road block and/or a difficult life road block. Lastly, I would offer them the opportunity to come see my classroom and feel the love that we give each other. I would tell them that they can build that kind of community for themselves and some amazing kids.
Q: What else would you like to highlight or mention?
A: I would like for everyone to take the time to consider the self-contained special education students on our campuses around the state. They are an often overlooked bunch, but they are working harder than anyone, every day in their classrooms. They need the opportunity to show everyone who they are and what they can accomplish. We need to open our classrooms, community spaces, and hearts to them so that they can enrich us all, like they have enriched my life.