As a pharmacist, Kathy Neal should have known if laughter really is the best medicine. As a science teacher at Thomson High, she experienced it.
"The biggest surprise for me when I became a teacher was that I was happy, and I laughed every day," said Mrs. Neal, who was a pharmacist for 25 years before becoming a teacher.
Mrs. Neal was named McDuffie County's top Teacher of the Year on Monday night and will represent McDuffie County in the Georgia Teacher of the Year program this spring.
In her speech, Mrs. Neal said she was accepting the award on behalf of all teachers.
"What a lucky little haven we have here of dedicated teachers," Mrs. Neal said. "I am very humbled because there are so many deserving people in our county. It will be a big responsibility to represent them to the degree they deserve."
The seven Teachers of the Year of each McDuffie County school were honored during a banquet.
The seven candidates were chosen by their peers before the end of the 2008-09 school year, and a panel of judges from other school systems selects the top teacher.
Classroom observation of each of the candidates was conducted by the judges with interviews immediately following their classroom observation. This process mirrors the one used during the state level of competition.
Held in the junior high school's cafetorium, the banquet dinner was catered by The Silver Palm and was attended by more than 220 local school administrators, school board members, teachers and their families. The Thomson High School varsity and junior varsity cheerleaders were the servers, and WJBF Channel 6 news anchor Paige Tucker was the emcee of ceremonies.
Each of the Teachers of the Year candidates shared an answer to one of their essay questions about what they would tell other teachers if they had the opportunity.
Thomson Middle's Felicia Cullars thanked all the teachers who taught her. Norris Elementary's Tamara Hammond urged reduction of classroom sizes. Maxwell Elementary's Lisa Hawkins reminded everyone to remember why they became a teacher in the first place. Thomson Elementary's Tabitha Purvis said a teacher should "think outside the box" to instill a lifetime love of learning in students.
And because the teaching profession is under constant criticism, Mrs. Neal encouraged teachers to arm themselves with knowledge and to stay informed of their statistics. She also encouraged them to stay involved with governmental processes regarding education.
"Write your legislator a letter, then write them another one, maybe even three letters," she said. "Your legislator should recognize you if they saw you in the grocery store."
Ranging in ages from kindergarteners to seniors in high school, former students of each candidate gave their introductions before they spoke.
"Her favorite saying was 'I said what I meant, and I meant what I said,'" Nicki Johnson, now a freshman at Thomson-McDuffie Junior High, said of Ms. Cullars, who taught her in sixth grade.
Third-grader Colton Bonner spoke in sign language to an interpreter, who told how much it meant when Mrs. Hawkins learned sign language so she could communicate with Colton.
"You taught me more in one day than I could have possibly taught you in an entire year," Mrs. Hawkins said to Colton in reply.
Thomson High senior Haley Tam definitely had enough experience with Mrs. Neal as her teacher to introduce her.
"For the past seven years, I have had Mrs. Neal as a teacher in some form," Haley said, as she went on to describe each of those years, beginning with sixth grade and moving through high school. "Mrs. Neal has been there for each and every one of her students, just as we've been there for her. We have helped each other through the toughest of times. Though her desk may look like her notebook blew up on it, and she can't always find everything, we're used to it. It has been seven years. So now, with college looming over all of our heads, Mrs. Neal will have to make a big decision -- who will she follow to college?"