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Fired teacher discusses teaching, what future holds

After an eight-hour hearing, Dacula High School teacher Larry "Doc" Neace was fired May 6 in front of dozens of his current and former students, parents and his academic peers.

The Gwinnett County Board of Education claims Neace violated school policy by docking a student's grade for sleeping in class and refusing administrative orders to correct the grade.

Neace said he never refused to change the grade, but wanted to make sure doing so would not violate teacher ethics guidelines. The science teacher is appealing his dismissal to the state Department of Education. School officials cannot comment on the case because of the ongoing legal battle.

This week, Jaime Sarrio, education reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post, sat down with Neace to find out how it felt to see students from 20 years ago supporting his cause, why at age 61 he wants to keep teaching and what he'll do if he can't get back into the classroom.

Gwinnett Daily Post: Where did you get the nickname 'Doc'?

Larry Neace: About 1984, I was teaching an advanced biology class, and I had a lab coat on, and I had my stethoscope on, and I was taking blood pressures. And one of my students said, "Look - he looks just like a doctor." And another said, "Yeah, Doc Neace." And that's all it took. It stuck. And from that point on, that's what I was known by.

GDP: What made you decide to become a teacher? Did you always know?

LN: I was an older student - I was in my early 30s. I worked in private industry for 15 years before I got into actual education. The last seven of those, I was going to college full time and working full time. One of my lab partners was a girl that had just graduated from high school, and we were in an advanced chemistry class. She had some real problems understanding formulas and how to write the labs up and the concepts, so I not only did the chemistry part of it, I was teaching her how to understand chemistry. Every time I would see that light come on for her - you just don't know what kind of feeling that was. I thought, "I wonder if it is like this in front of the kids in the classroom." So I (started) student teaching, and there it was. And I haven't left it.

GDP: What did you do before you went to college? You didn't go to college right after high school?

LN: No. I worked for Kaiser Steele Corporation in California for eight years, and after about the sixth or seventh year, I decided that's not what I really wanted to do. But I couldn't go to college and work for them because I was on a rotating shift. So I quit my job and found another job at another steel mill. There, they put me on a straight graveyard shift - midnight to 7 - and so I could go to school during the day and work at night, and that's what I did. It took me a while because I couldn't take a full load, but I did it.

GDP: How long did it take you?

LN: It took me a total of seven years.

GDP: Are you from California?

LN: No. I am from a little country town in southeastern Washington called Dayton. It is about 30 miles north of Walla Walla.

GDP: How did you get to Georgia?

LN: I had a friend out here, and I was trying to get out of California because it had gotten crazy out there. I was wanting a change, and I was told they wanted a science teacher at South Gwinnett. So I called the principal at South Gwinnett, and he said, "Come on out and I'll interview you." My first actual job I was split between South Gwinnett and Dacula. I taught a half day at South Gwinnett, and during my lunch break I would drive from South Gwinnett to Dacula High School and eat lunch in the car. At the end of the year, they had an opening at both schools, and both principals asked me if I wanted to teach at their respective school. I liked South Gwinnett, but Dacula was more like my hometown school was, so I chose Dacula.

GDP: What about the school reminded you of your hometown?

LN: At the time I was teaching there, that first year, there was only 450 students in the school. I was the only science teacher there - half time. The following year, we hired one more, so the whole department consisted of two science teachers.

GDP: And so it was small, like the area you were from?

LN: Yes, it was.

GDP: Was the community pretty tight?

LN: Yes. Geographically, it was pretty spread out. But the people, everybody knew everybody, their children's names, their dogs' names, and I did too after a year or two of teaching some of the students. It was a very close community.

GDP: What is your philosophy behind education and behind your relationship with your students?

LN: When students walk into my classroom, I greet them and treat them as human beings with individual personalities, individual needs and individual abilities. I try to address that not only on a personal level but on an academic level, too. When I am in front of the classroom, I try not only to impart the knowledge that they - the system - expects me to, but I try to impart life lessons. I was in the private sector for 15 years. I know what it is like to be in the private sector, and I try to share examples of life experiences with my students to say, "This is what it's like. This is what you are going to see. This is what you're going to be confronted with." And that, I strongly believe, should be a part of a high school student's academic career as well.

GDP: Do you feel kids in this time and age are a little more sheltered when it comes to how things are in the real world?

LN: They seem to be. I've been working on a job since I was 12, and that was my choice. I don't see that as much as when I was growing up. The students now - the ones that actually participate in societal situations such as getting a job - they have a taste for that. But you don't see near as much of that now in 2005 as I did in 1982 when I first came to Gwinnett County.

GDP: What do you think it is? Because kids aren't working as much? Dacula is definitely more of an affluent community than it was.

LN: Yeah, that may be part of it. I'm not saying their mom and dads spoon-feed them, but it doesn't seem like the children or the parents feel like it is necessary for the kids to work. If they do work, a lot of times it is for spending money or gas money or that sort of thing.

GDP: So how have you tweaked your educational philosophy to suit today's kids?

LN: I really haven't changed my philosophy, it's just it is harder to impart that now than it was 23 years ago and make it meaningful. But I still do it, I still try. I try to show them the education they are getting is not just knowledge - it is practical information they can use.

GDP: You had several students who you taught 20 years ago show up at your hearing. What do you think it is about you that stuck with them for that long?

LN: I don't know. I don't know that there is anything that I can pinpoint to satisfy that question. I do what I do because I believe in what I do. They grow up, they graduate, and they go out into the world, and as a teacher, you never know what they are taking with them - good, bad or indifferent. You just don't know until something like this, and then it all comes back like a tsunami.

GDP: What was it like getting so many letters and responses and seeing this group come out for you?

LN: Just overwhelming. To say it felt great is an understatement. And when this incident is over - that, I will take with me to my grave.

GDP: Do you think you made any enemies over the past 23 years?

LN: Oh, I am sure. When you teach 120 students a year, you're not going to be buddy-buddy with all of them, so I suppose I have.

GDP: Now you've been cast in this role as a renegade, you're this teacher advocate. Are you comfortable with that? Is that a role you ever thought you'd find yourself in?

LN: I am not uncomfortable with it at all. I mean, I am not going to carry a banner bragging about it, but that's what I am. I stand up for what I believe is right and legal and correct, and I don't back down from what I think is right.

GDP: So here you are. You don't have a job. I don't know what your financial situation is like. How are you going to make it through the summer?

LN: A few days ago, I was approached by a parent of a student at Dacula, and she wanted to know about setting up some sort of a fund to help with my finances. She said the students want to contribute, the parents want to contribute so you can make it through the summer at least to the fall. I finally got it cleared through the credit union where I bank and there is a fund set up down there - DADD, Dacula Against Dumping Doc.

GDP: When did you imagine you would quit teaching?

LN: Probably another three or four years. I still walk in the classroom and really enjoy what I do, so it is not like I would quit because I don't enjoy what I am doing.

GDP: Is it going to be sad for you when fall rolls around and you haven't found a classroom to go in?

LN: It's sad now. When I get up in the morning, I can't go and be with my kids. It kills me.

GDP: So, what have you got going on for the rest of the

summer?

LN: Well, if I cannot secure a teaching contract, then I will probably get a job somewhere - working at Home Depot, working construction. I've wired houses before. There are a lot of things I can do.

GDP: What do you hope that this whole episode is going to communicate to your students?

LN: I stand up for what I think is right ... and I stand up for what I believe in. Other than that, I don't know. Of course, it cost me my job - well, right now it has.