As long as she can remember, Karen Neal has wanted to be a teacher.
When she was a little girl, the avid reader dreamed of being a teacher and helping other children learn to love books as much as she did.
Twenty five years into her career, Neal is now an institution at Gilbert Elementary School in Lafayette, Georgia, and her passion for both literacy and her students continues to drive her.
"My goal in life is to help other kids or to get other kids to love reading as much as I do," she said. "The first day of school, I told them, the reader that you are today will not be the reader that you are tomorrow, and the reader that you are today will not be the reader that you are at the end of the year. You'll be an amazing reader."
Neal said she helps encourage her fifth graders to read by modeling, or showing them what a lifelong reader looks like. Sometimes she'll tell them about a book she's reading at home or the end of a story she stayed up late to finish.
Some students who don't always enjoy reading say Neal makes it exciting.
By fifth grade, students in Georgia are reading both fiction and nonfiction texts and learning how to analyze things such as the theme, or main idea, of a story.
Eli Mitchell, 11, said he loves to read, but sometimes he might have trouble getting through a passage or finishing a book.
"I was struggling with this book, but she helped me push through," he said. "She lights things up."
Neal believes that by ensuring her students are strong readers, she can help them establish firm academic foundations that can take them far in life.
Name: Karen Neal
School: Gilbert Elementary, Walker County Schools
Grade Level/Position: Fifth grade teacher
Teaching Philosophy: “The reader that you are today will not be the reader that you are tomorrow, and the reader that you are today will not be the reader that you are at the end of the year. You’ll be an amazing reader.”
"When you instill that love [of reading], it sticks for life. I want them to know that the possibilities are endless," Neal said.
Her love of literacy isn't the only way that she serves as a role model for her students, though.
Beth Pelham has been principal at Gilbert for just one year.
As she gave a tour of the school and explained some of its new literacy initiatives, Pelham said that when you have an idea as a principal, you go to a teacher, and when you want something done — you go to Neal.
"She is an amazing educator. She is an inspiration not only to her students but ... to her colleagues and myself," Pelham said. "She is definitely a leader in the classroom as well as outside in our building and our district."
Recently, the school launched a Tome Student Literacy Society. The club, which can be found at schools across Georgia, meets twice a month on "Tome Tuesdays" and serves as a reading club for upper grades at the elementary school.
Students select books from certain lists, read and discuss them and complete projects to earn points for their school. Only a handful of fifth graders at Gilbert participate now, but Neal hopes to expand the program to fourth grade next year.
Neal said it is an opportunity to encourage students who are already ambitious readers, as well as to reach high-performing students and improve their reading skills.
The school, known as a STEM school thanks to its multiple forest kindergarten and outdoor education programs, also launched "Hive" this year, a reading program run by the school's librarian that sorts all third, fourth and fifth graders into "bee hives" and allows them to earn points as they read.
Neal is one of the teachers on the project team, as well, and leads other after-school clubs and activities for students, including taking part in the school's Archery Club.
Melody Nelson doesn't really like to read books by herself, but the 11-year-old said Neal has helped her overcome anxiety about reading aloud in class this year. Now Melody likes to read with others, and she even presented a 4-H project about pollution "in front of the whole class and it was really fun."
"Just the way [Neal] builds relationships with students, she makes that a priority and she makes connections with them so they not only want to grow academically but to learn to please her," Pelham said, echoing Melody's example.
For Neal, it's her students who have encouraged her day after day and year after year. She said that even when there are rough years, she leans on her faith and prays for her students.
"I know that God put them in my class, put me in their life for a reason," Neal said. "When they come in each morning and have a smile on their face, then that makes me know why I'm here."
The Teacher of the Month series recognizes a local educator who is making a difference in the classroom every day. It was launched in September 2019. Nominations are accepted each month from parents, students, community members and even other teachers. The winner is selected by an external committee and awarded a variety of prizes. The series is sponsored by Kia of Chattanooga.
For more information and to nominate a teacher, visit here.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.