Since she was in high school, Khalea Neal knew she wanted to be a teacher. As a teen, she would help her friends study and feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment when they would succeed. That passion for teaching carried her to her current role as a fifth-grade educator at Prescott School in Dubuque. It’s also why she says she felt so emotional when Dubuque schools closed in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic in March. “Walking out the doors before spring break, I was not expecting that would be last time I'd see my students,” she says. “I wish I could have given them a better farewell. I usually do a big send-off at the end of the year, and I didn’t get to do that for this group.”
In the face of the coronavirus, Khalea is tackling complex issues from her teaching position. Her students, she says, are her top priority, and she is working to ensure they receive a quality education whether school is taking place remotely or in person. “Many students at Prescott come to school with a lot of struggles in their lives, and I’m helping them cope with those challenges while also teaching them,” she says.
At the same time, Khalea is partnering with her friend and fellow teacher Mariah Garner to develop an outreach program for African American students in teaching programs at Dubuque colleges. The goal is to both coach students through their studies while building a pipeline of diverse educators to join the Dubuque Community School District. The increasingly diverse student population in Dubuque needs to see people who look like them in leadership positions making a positive impact to serve as a counterpoint to negative stereotypes, she says. “I had an African American girl in my class who told me, ‘I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” Khalea says. “At Prescott, a lot of students look like me, and I feel like I’m making a positive difference in their lives because they can see someone who looks like them.” While Khalea feels she can play that role in her students’ lives, she also says they play a similar role for her. Teaching at Prescott, she gets a feeling much like the one she experienced helping her friends study in high school. “My students are also helping me,” she says. "I feel like I have a purpose when I come to work.”
As the pandemic continues, Khalea is anxious about what the coming school year holds — but she’s also confident that Dubuquers can come together to get through the challenges they face today and those that lie ahead. And, she says, she is happy to be a part of the solution: "I love serving the Dubuque community and making a positive difference.”