We had the good fortune of connecting with Kareem Neal and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kareem, what is the most important factor behind your success?
I think the most important factor behind my success is the passion and love I have for my job. A big reason why I have been successful has been based on the words of the people I work for and with. I think the reason why those people speak highly of me is because they can tell just how much I love teaching and students. Many people comment on how I “light up” when I talk about my students. That has encouraged many people to want to work with me or have me come speak for their organizations. It has also been a big reason why administrators value my input and ask me to be in leadership positions. Most importantly, it is a big reason why my students work hard and are excited to come to school.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
It was with a lot of luck that I entered the profession of teaching. I was not an education major during my time as an undergraduate student back in the mid 1990s. My life was changed when I happened upon a Special Olympics event one weekend, 25 years ago. There, I met a group of young adults who were amongst the most authentic and joyful that I had seen until that point. I knew immediately what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, I went straight to graduate school to earn my degree in special education while working as a teacher assistant at a school for children with autism. I have been a teacher for students with cognitive disabilities from the moment I finished graduate school back in 1998. I believe that school communities need to be connected. A large part of that belief comes from my experience that day with the Special Olympics. Before that day, I did not think very often about people with cognitive disabilities, or even about my peers in special education classrooms. Part of that was because I didn’t have any options to interact with the students in special education classrooms. The landscape for special education has changed, for the better, since I was a student back in the 1980s, but there are still vast opportunities for growth. Inclusion models still view education as a vehicle for neurotypical students. Where, through inclusion, special education students can get a sampling of a classroom as it should be. No one considers having neurotypical students experience special education classrooms to observe their peers that learn differently. When neurotypical students are with special education students, it is to help. Therefore, they do not view their special education peers as actual peers. Therefore, special education students actually look up to neurotypical students as if they are automatic role models. What this system is doing is keeping students from truly connecting as peers. When I think back to how my life was changed that day I witnessed the Special Olympics event, it makes me want to ensure that all students have a chance to meet all of their peers, even those with different ability levels. So, I have dedicated a lot of my time talking about creating more connected schools. I have been fortunate enough, as a state teacher of the year, to have a large platform to give talks and trainings on truly connected schools. I believe that teachers need to strive to build true communities in their classrooms and schools. Learning happens best when all stakeholders feel a part of something larger. Learning happens best when all stakeholders feel like they are valued, respected, and seen. If a large portion of a school isn’t valued, respected, or seen, the school isn’t a true community. Furthermore, if a classroom is not a community, learning is not optimized. I feel like it is our duty as educators to make all students feel valued.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If my best friend came to visit, I would definitely start with dinner at the Welcome Diner in downtown Phoenix! They have an amazing peanut butter, bacon burger that has to be tried. After, I’d probably want to go downtown for drinks at Hanny’s because of the atmosphere and delicious drinks. At some point during the week, The next day, I’d want to do breakfast at Matt’s Big Breakfast, because everything on the menu is delicious. If it is a week day, at some point in the afternoon I’d take him to the Dressing Room on Roosevelt. I’d definitely want to go to one of the Trivia Night spots, probably the Whining Pig because it is such a unique place. We are both really into film, so at some point, we’d also go to FilmBar, then hit the Cobra Arcade afterwards. I like all of the downtown spots, not just for delicious food and drink, but because the diversity downtown is appealing. It is always great to meet interesting people who are not all alike.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
A person that deserves a ton of credit for my success is Carla Esparza, a paraprofessional in my classroom. We have worked together for 8 1/2 years and she has been just as dedicated to the students as I am. She is also just as instrumental in their success as I am. She is currently attending college at ASU to become a special education teacher, and she will be one of the best. Even during these difficult times for education/teaching, she is in touch with me and the students every day. There is no way I would be where I am without her support.
My paraprofessional Carla took the one of me in pajamas. Cornelius White took the headshot in glasses.