One In A Million- Black History Month Feature:
Name: Kareem Neal
School: Maryvale High School
Grade: 9 – 12
How long have you been a teacher? I have been a teacher for 24 years.
What made you get into the teaching profession? I was at a Special Olympics event and I loved the authenticity of the athletes. They were all so open and honest with their feelings and that was refreshing for a college junior who was used to everyone acting, looking, and sounding the same.
Did you face any challenges because you are African-American? I faced challenges two specific times in my career based on my race. One time, I was straight up told that my students behave well for me because I am big and black. The other time, an administrator followed me around accusing me (all lies) of various things with no proof like stealing money from our school store, hugging students in an inappropriate way, and having a well-behaved class based on intimidation. I filed grievances several times, it was so bad. Many people thought I should have left the school at the time based on the lies and affronts to my character, but I was determined not to allow one person to ruin my experience. It definitely made me feel like an outsider.
Who was your most inspirational teacher and why? My inspirational teacher was Mrs. Faragalli. She was my high school Spanish teacher and the first teacher who celebrated me for my personality and attitude instead of my academic acumen. I was a really good student and teachers always highlighted and fostered that, but she brought out my personality and it gave me confidence that carried on throughout my schooling and life.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges teachers in Arizona face right now? I used to think it was school funding because our classrooms were lacking books and other supplies necessary for learning. However, now it is definitely the fact that so many Arizona students are in classrooms without certified teachers. The teacher shortage is causing teachers to give up preparation hours to cover classes and more importantly, causing students to learn from subs instead of certified teachers. I do think that funding is a big reason for this, but that is no longer the complete story. Teachers are feeling like a part of the political machine and they are no longer feeling appreciated for their hard work.
How do these issues affect your day to day? It takes away planning time because I often help by covering classes or even taking extra students in my class. I am a pretty easy-going person, but it brings me down seeing students not get what they need in classrooms.
How are the expectations of becoming a teacher different than the reality? Well, I think expectations are that the world will respect and honor you, but the reality has changed. I feel like half of the world dislikes us now. I don’t know if it is reparable, but it definitely isn’t helping the teacher retainment efforts.
Why do you think teachers burn out so quickly? They come in thinking the job is only teaching and helping develop kids. What they often see is that they have to contend with needing an extra job, doing paperwork, administering and prepping for testing, and a host of other duties that they couldn’t have considered as an undergrad. Plus, behavior has been increasingly more difficult since cell phones became a norm. It is hard to contend with a device that is way more entertaining than any teacher could ever hope to be. So, teachers are constantly trying to stop students from doing the thing that has become essential for most people in society. It has led to loads of power struggles and waning interest in traditional teaching/learning. At this point, your lessons have to be unbelievably dynamic to hope to contend with that.
What “fills your cup” when you’re running on empty? I can’t lie, I don’t really get too down or tired (which is probably why I’ve survived 25 years). Working with kids is kind of the thing that always keeps my cup full. Having a job that you love, is probably the best way to keep your cup full.
What are some of the most thoughtful and effective ways parents and the community can show gratitude? Parents and community members should show up to school functions as much as possible. It is nice to know that parents are invested in the school community and it is a helpful tool in fighting disinformation campaigns against schools. The more the community gets to see the school and the employees of the school in action, the less likely they are to talk down about education. Another important one, that feels new but shouldn’t have been, is to keep student home when they aren’t feeling well. It would do a lot in preventing the head colds, flu, and viruses that pass around schools so often.
What is your wish for Arizona students of color? To have the opportunity for an equitable education where they are not being unfairly disciplined and where they are given rigorous lessons that show that we respect their ability to achieve at high levels.
What is your advice to African-American students who want to become teachers? The only way schools are going to become less difficult for young students of color is if you continue on your journey to helping change the face of education to reflect the country.
What efforts, if any, should schools make to attract and retain African-American teachers? The same effort they should be doing to attract and retain all teachers… increase salaries significantly. All workplaces are going to have challenges for Black people, but its nice to not have to worry about poverty like too many Black people in our country. I do think there are things that schools can do like decreasing invisible workload (particularly things like placing students with challenging behaviors with Black students because of assumptions about what students “fear”), and offering opportunities for leadership, but in the end higher salaries will be most effective.
What additional support or supplies do you need in your classroom and who do people contact if they want to help out? I have an amazon book list for my class: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/1XU6V39BAA0A1/ref=nav_wishlist_lists_1