Kevin Dailey

Kevin Dailey, 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year

In an effort to better capture and celebrate the wealth of knowledge and expertise of teachers across the state, I set out to interview and observe educators from every corner of Kentucky. The process was simple: find teachers who create classrooms where kids want to be, get to know them and bear witness to what makes them special, and then celebrate that experience. It is my theory that every single school in Kentucky has teachers that I can learn from and are worth celebrating. None of these teachers are perfect, but through their imperfections, they all have something special they contribute to their students and their community. I hope by sharing my experience with these teachers, our communities can have a window into our classrooms and other teachers can begin to embrace their own Imperfect Classrooms.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that teachers do much more than just teach their academic content. It could be argued that in a post-pandemic world, academic content has been relegated as a secondary goal for many classrooms around the country. And for good reason. Psychologists have long argued that in order for a person to learn, they must first have their physical needs met (“hungry kids don’t learn”), then they have to feel safe and secure, and finally, they have to feel a sense of belonging and connection to their community. Only when these conditions are met can a student be set up for success in the classroom. Right now, in Kentucky schools and elsewhere, a large share of the responsibility to meet these needs are being placed directly on the shoulders of classroom teachers. Love it or hate it, it just is.

Zach Neal poses with a geode

Zach Neal, Campbell County Middle School

As someone who has had the honor of visiting classrooms across the state, I can personally attest to the herculean efforts being made by teachers in rising to this unprecedented challenge. Nowhere has this been more evident than at Campbell County Middle School. Whether it is sitting on the floor of the hallway during class change to provide students a moment of calm and an opportunity to stretch or integrating trauma-informed practices within the classroom, Zach Neal is ensuring that each of his students are ready to learn and grow when they enter the classroom.

Zach earned his undergraduate degree in education from Mount St. Joseph University and his master’s degree from Thomas More University. Even though he is from and lives in Ohio – a state with substantially higher salary schedules – he has chosen to make Campbell County his home. He has woven his story into the fabric of Campbell County Schools by investing in a community that invests in its students. Because the school culture is set up to prioritize the well-being of students and building relationships to achieve success, Zach is free to do so much more than “just teach.” And boy does he.

One step into his classroom and you are immediately wrapped up in the warmth and positive energy that can only be described as magic. Dozens of Mickey Mouse ears hang from the ceiling, bulletin boards are covered with student work and surrounded by Disney characters, Cinderella’s Castle is prominently displayed on nearly every wall. Zach has literally transformed his classroom into the happiest place on Earth. For anyone questioning if this is “too childish” or if middle school students are “too old for Disney”, I want you to resist that thought. For a young person who is being asked to sit all day long and still push themselves academically, this little touch of comfort can mean the difference between success and failure.

One of Zach’s students explained it to me this way, “He makes learning fun and interactive, it just feels lighter than most classrooms… he even puts Disney into some of his lessons to make it make more sense to us. We all know Disney.” Another student remarked that Mr. Neal is fun, he jokes around a lot, and he’s even a little “Goofy” (they were really proud of this pun, so I had to include it), but all of that makes the class more memorable and engaging.

I would be remiss if I wrote this entire article and only talked about the fun, joyous, easygoing side of Zach. It isn’t exclusively Disney and magic and jokes all day long. Students learn, and they remember what they learned. When I asked what was most memorable about the school year, nearly every student mentioned academics first. They are learning about tough things; they are pushing themselves to do more and know more; but it is all facilitated in an environment of comfort, calm, and support that is entirely created by Zach and his larger-than-life personality. Outside of the classroom, Zach brings this same balance of comfort and tenacity in his role as Campbell County Education Association President, advocating for teachers and students alike.

Visiting Zach’s classroom and Campbell County Middle School was an incredible experience for so many reasons, but none as great as bearing witness to what a classroom can be, rather than what it always has been. Education in recent years has changed. The responsibilities of a teacher have grown and unfortunately, compensation for those increased duties have not kept pace. This, and many other factors, have forced teachers to step outside of the classroom to advocate for the profession and to be critical of the systems at play. Despite all of that, teachers like Zach Neal prove that we can be fierce advocates for our profession while still being compassionate and supportive for our students. We can be a source of comfort and calm, while being firm and tenacious. The role of a teacher has changed. The range of what we have to do has increased. But the one constant that Zach has proven to be true is that a classroom can still be the happiest place on Earth.

This series is designed to provide a glimpse into classrooms across Kentucky, but moreover, to celebrate our public school teachers’ contributions to their students and their communities. If you know of a teacher who creates an amazing classroom environment and brings excitement, optimism, and excellence to education in Kentucky, email Kevin Dailey.

Kevin Dailey is a teacher at Ballyshannon Middle School in Boone County, Kentucky and is the 2024 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.