Erin McNeil, Heritage Teacher of the Year’s philosophy of compassion: “You never know someone’s backstory.”
A sign hangs above the sink as you walk into Erin McNeil’s fifth-grade classroom that reads, “In case no one told you today….Hello, good morning! You belong here. You’re doing great! I believe in you.” This is one of the many positive and encouraging signs that you will find hanging around the classroom, but the difference between this sign and her other signs is that this quote never changes.
McNeil explained that the quote above her sink never changes because she wants to remind students every day that there is someone on their side cheering them on. Her goal is for her students to have a place where they feel like they belong, knowing they can be whoever they are.
McNeil grew up in Idaho Falls and moved to Cache Valley in 2003. She took several years off to raise her children and later worked as a special education aide while getting recertified to teach. McNeil has been teaching fifth grade at Heritage for the last two years. Even though she jumped back into her teaching career at the start of the pandemic, she has loved every minute of it.
Creating a happy environment for learning is essential to McNeil because she knows that when students feel comfortable, they can push themselves to greater lengths. “If you can take care of those basic needs and they feel safe, and they feel secure, it opens up the door for them to learn,” McNeil explained. “They don’t have to hold back when they are trying to learn. They can really explore things and let their opinions out if they know that nobody is going to judge them for what they are going to say. Nobody is going to turn their back on them.”
McNeil’s teaching has been shaped by the teachers she has had throughout her life and the mentors that have been there to help her. A couple of teachers who have impacted her life have been her high school German teacher, whose philosophy of learning allowed students to retake tests or turn in assignments late, and a middle school teacher who went the extra mile to make her feel heard and understood.
Now, McNeil has the opportunity to take the kindness and compassion shown to her when she was in school and become that same kind of teacher to her students. You will often find McNeil talking to current and past students before and after school, helping them with concepts they don’t understand or helping with the Kindness Committee Club.