Q&A with Arizona’s 2019 Teacher of the Year Kareem Neal

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Kareem Neal with his students. From left: Luz Machorro (17), Angel Ortiz (18), Shanae Dawkins (15), Richard Lomeli (15), Gabriel Gonzales (14), Lillian Hoy (15), Shawn Zuniga (14), Jair Andrade (17) and Lesly Meraz (18).

Kareem Neal was a chemical engineering major until late into his junior year at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Then he attended a Special Olympics event, which made him realize his true calling: teaching kids with special needs. He quickly finished an undergraduate degree in psychology and headed to graduate school.

Fast-forward two decades. Neal, 44, towered over teaching colleagues (he’s 6-foot-7) at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in October, when the Arizona Educational Foundation named him its 2019 Teacher of the Year.

Neal has spent 22 years teaching­ — 12 of them as a self-contained special education teacher at Maryvale High School in the Phoenix Union High School District, where he’s known for creating a tight-knit classroom.

“Kareem embodies all that is exceptional about the teaching profession,” says Kim Graham, executive director of the Arizona Educational Foundation, which selected Neal from among 200 other highly regarded teachers nominated for the honor. “He not only cares about the academic needs of his students, but has also established partnerships with organizations like Goodwill [to] help his students learn job skills so that they can become more independent once they graduate. He also leads social-justice workshops for his school and district that promote acceptance and understanding among students.”

This year, Neal will make more than 100 appearances across the state, advocating for teachers and public education, following a milestone year in Arizona education when tens of thousands of Arizona teachers wearing red walked out of the classroom and marched on the State Capitol, demanding better pay and funding for public education.

Neal shared his thoughts about the challenges Arizona teachers still face, his proudest moment as an educator and why he urges young people — especially black youth — to embrace the profession.

Please explain what “self-contained special education” means. It means that students stay with the same teacher/staff throughout the day. They are always together, even when they do physical education class. These students require that kind of environment for their [physical] safety and learning needs. All students in the class have severe cognitive delays. Many also have physical needs like feeding, toileting and motor planning for writing/sitting/walking.

You’ve said you want people to better understand how your students enrich school campuses. Can you elaborate? I don’t think any community is at its best if all members of the community aren’t represented. When self-contained students are more than an afterthought, the students and staff get a full perspective of all stakeholders at a school. On our campus, I’ve been able to foster relationships with other teachers who work collaboratively with my class to do projects and lessons. The first thing it does is free their “regular ed” peers from feeling like their peers in self-contained classrooms are either fragile or weird. They benefit from the experiences with my students, and my students benefit from them. It’s great when my students don’t look up to their regular ed peers and [instead] view them for what they are: peers. It closes the invisible gaps. Next, it helps teachers figure out creative ways to differentiate instruction. Lastly, it helps give everyone a stronger view of inclusion [in and outside of school].

You hope to inspire more minorities — especially black youth — to consider teaching as a profession. What’s your best argument for why they should choose a teaching career? I tell young black students that I mentor that schools will continue to do a disservice to black children for as long as black people choose to only be professionals in other fields. Our best chance for schools that lift up little black children is to have a staff that understands their unique challenges. I convey to all children that teaching is their chance to make a lasting mark on the world, doing a “job” that fills you with love and joy every day.

Kareem Neal with some of his students. Clockwise: Richard Lomeli (15), Jair Andrade (17), Lesly Meraz (18) and Luz Machorro (17).

What’s been your proudest moment as an educator? My proudest moment as an educator was when Maria Armenta became a special education teacher at Maryvale High School. She attended my diversity camp in 2010 and became a T.A. [teaching assistant] in my classroom during her senior year at Maryvale in 2012. One day, she told me that she loved the self-contained population and my class so much that she was considering becoming a teacher.

However, she was concerned about not being able to make a living on a teacher’s salary. I had her research the average salary of a person in Arizona, and the average teacher salary in Arizona. I told her that I had been teaching for 15 years [at that time], and I still loved coming to work every day, and I didn’t know many people like that. Four years after that, she got her teaching certificate and graduated from college. She is now in her second year teaching at Maryvale, and she was one of my two guests to the Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year luncheon.

Do you think the Red for Ed movement will continue? I do think that the movement will continue in some way. I think we all have realized the movement was so much bigger than teacher pay. I know a large majority of my colleagues actively are continuing with the movement. We still wear red every Wednesday. We still have large group message strands discussing educational needs on social media and apps like Remind. I can’t see it stopping, because it isn’t just educators … it’s everyone.

What remain the biggest challenges for educators in Arizona? The biggest challenges are funding and respect. Funding is obvious. We are losing too many young teachers who can’t afford to live on their salaries. Our classrooms and buildings aren’t in great shape. Our classroom technology is lacking. However, the respect issue is harder. Red for Ed showed us that we are respected, but that respect isn’t shown on a consistent basis. We have to fight for every nickel we earn. We face vocal opposition from a large [number] of people in the state when we ask for better working conditions. All of that paled in comparison to what I saw during the late-night session at the State Capitol during the walkout. There were lawmakers who were blatantly disrespectful toward teachers. It was awful.

Tell me something about Maryvale High School that people may not know. Maryvale High School is a great community school, and it is very safe. There is a reputation that comes with being in the Maryvale area that just doesn’t hold true when it comes to the school. Our principal, Shakira Simmons, is smart, capable and committed. The teachers are some of the best in the country; we currently have two national award-winning teachers and five Nationally Board Certified teachers. The 3,000 students are fantastic and take great pride in their education.

You’re passionate about making students feel more connected to their classrooms and their school. Why? When people feel connected to something, it makes them care for it more. It also makes it less likely that they will want to cause it harm in any way. School is such a wonderful place to be, and our best chance of getting everyone to view it that way is to try to make sure everyone feels connected to their classroom communities and overall school community. With that comes good grades, participation in clubs and sports and lifelong learners.

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From left: Jonathan Perrone, Maria Barker, Lee Ann Howell, Sheri Loyd and Kareem Neal.

Teacher of the Year finalists

Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year winners get a $15,000 cash award, a week at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and a chance to compete for National Teacher of the Year — plus professional training in public speaking and a full scholarship toward an advanced degree at Argosy University in Phoenix.

Teacher of the Year finalists and 2019 Ambassadors for Excellence

Maria Barker: preschool teacher at Red Mountain Center for Early Education, a Mesa public school
Lee Ann Howell: seventh-grade science teacher at Colonel Smith Middle School, part of the Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District in Fort Huachuca
Sheri Loyd: third-grade ELA and math teacher at Mountain View School in the Dysart Unified School District in Waddell
Jonathan Perrone: eighth-grade STEAM teacher at Phoenix’s Mountain Sky Middle School in the Washington Elementary School District

Teacher of the Year semifinalists

Joshua Farr: science teacher at Cienega High School in the Vail Unified School District
Amy Komitzky Henning: English and ELA teacher at Chandler School in the Chandler Unified School District
Benjamin Lebovitz: choir and drama teacher at Walden Grove High School in the Sahuarita Unified School District
Rachel Lodge: ninth-grade history teacher at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson
Dr. Lettice Pelotte: English and history teacher at Metro Tech High School in the Phoenix Union High School District