Monday afternoon, a class of students at Thomson High School thought their teacher was in trouble when the principal came to the door and called her out of the classroom. Their feeling was confirmed when she walked back in with a "shell-shocked expression" on her face.
Actually Thomson High School science teacher Kathy Neal had just been informed that she was one of 10 finalist for state Teacher of the Year.
"The kids asked me if I was in trouble, and so I thanked them first for being my students and then I told them what happened, and they all stood up and clapped and cheered," Mrs. Neal said.
Principal Rudy Falana enjoyed the scenario, and laughed at the students' response, saying they associate his presence with "getting in trouble."
"This is a pleasant thing to do in light of everything else that's going on," he admitted. "It's something positive. ... I just think it's a feather in Kathy's hat. We know what a good teacher she is."
Mrs. Neal was named McDuffie County Teacher of the Year last October. A press release Monday from the Georgia Department of Education revealed she was selected from 148 local districts to be one of the 10 finalists for the statewide honor.
"I'm just really overwhelmed," Mrs. Neal said. "I'm excited for our school and for the students and the teachers. This is never just a one person thing. It's because we have such a good team over here that works together so well. ... It's such a shared honor."
Although she teaches chemistry and college preparatory physical science at Thomson High, she first began teaching sixth-grade science at Thomson Middle School only eight years ago. Mrs. Neal said she was a registered pharmacist for 25 years before she felt called at age 50 to become a teacher. She spent the first few years "following" her students as they graduated to the next grade level, until she became a teacher at the high school.
"When she walked in, I knew we had a diamond," Mr. Falana said of the first time he met Mrs. Neal, adding that her classroom is an "active process of learning."
"She's very innovative and dynamic in the classroom," he said. "And I think that one of her attributes is the fact that she has the ability to sense the needs and feelings of her students, and then she acts accordingly."
Finalists were chosen based on their biographies and essay responses to questions ranging from personal teaching philosophy to the issues facing education.
A panel of judges will visit Mrs. Neal's classroom in early March to observe her teaching and follow up with an interview. All the finalists will give a speech at a luncheon in Atlanta on March 26, and will be honored at a banquet at the Georgia Aquarium on May 14.
All finalists will serve on the state superintendent's advisory council next school year. The winner will spend the school year traveling around the state and nation, serving as an ambassador for the teaching profession.
Mrs. Neal is the fourth teacher from McDuffie County to make the top 10 in the last 12 years. She joins the ranks of Robin Dudley, Kelly Flanders and Sherry Allen.
The previous teachers received special deliveries of half-gallons of ice cream for themselves and ice cream sandwiches for the entire school from Blue Bell Creamery.
"One of the first things I thought about it, 'Oh goody, all the kids will get ice cream again,'" Mrs. Neal said with a laugh.