After 17 years of teaching, the students remain the most important, most worthwhile component of the whole experience for Neal Degner.
“The kids, the kids, the kids. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
After 23 years serving in the Navy, Degner began to explore what options existed for the next phase of his life. Having done some instructing in the Navy as a chief petty officer, teaching seemed like an obvious fit.
“I feel like it was kind of something I was led to. It was a natural transition for me,” Degner said.
After completing two years at St. Charles Community College and two years at , Degner went on to receive his master’s degree from . He knew, without a doubt, that he wanted to teach and landed at .
“I love middle school kids because they are just so dynamic. They are all about finding themselves," he said. "Middle school is about transitioning to high school, but it’s the last chance for us to find and patch up any holes or gaps that they might have gotten in elementary school somehow.”
For Degner, setting the bar high and seeing students reach that bar year after year is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.
“I have yet to find the upper level of the students’ ability,” Degner said. “They set the pace. You can try to set the pace, but you set the bar. I haven’t found where to set it yet because they always, in some way or another, reach it. They’re good kids.
“In life we meet people who are quiet, behind-the-scene leaders, never in the spotlight; but you know that they were the reason that there was a spotlight at all,” Wentzville Middle School Principal Stacy Ray said. “Neal is one of those people. He demands the best, and most often gets the best.”
With 17 years of teaching come stories of past students and the impression Degner’s influence left on their lives. One year, a troubled student landed a seat right next to Degner’s desk. Little by little, he noticed the algebra sheets he had prepared began disappearing from his desk. Eventually, Degner noticed the student had been taking the sheets and performing the advanced algebra problems.
From that day on, he would print out extra sheets, knowing the student would take them. Eventually Degner made the student take a math placement test. The student only answered one question correctly, but Degner placed him in an advanced algebra course for his eighth-grade year. Upset by the placement, he complained to Degner about being placed in the advanced course.
“I said, ‘In order to only get one right, you had to have known all of the answers on that test.’”
Years later, during a chance encounter at , Degner found out this student was doing great.
“This guy comes up behind me and he grabs me, he lifts me off the ground, and he said, ‘Mr. Degner, you were the best thing to ever happen to me.’ He went to college, and he’s a youth minister now. Those are the things that make you want to be a teacher.”
Degner and his wife have chosen to live and be active in the community, so moments like those can be possible.
“It makes us have the same sense that we had when we were in school; that kind of small-town flavor where everybody knew everybody.”
As a rule for himself and his classroom, Degner strives to make it a place of equality and fairness. He pushes students to surpass what they currently believe to be their ability and really surprise themselves.
“I get amazed when students come back to me and say, ‘You were one of the hardest teachers we had, but you were always the same for everybody.’ That’s what I want,” Degner said.
When it comes to teaching his subject, Degner has learned that the big picture of social studies is most important. From the beginning of his teaching career, he has adapted his teaching style from dates and details, to focusing on teaching students what life is about, where humans have been, and how we got to where we are.
“I want them to know how man started governing themselves and how laws came about and how religion came about,” Degner said. “I want them to know at least the five major religions, and I want them to be extremely tolerant of those religions. They need to learn that it’s OK. There’re other people.”
The changes Degner has experienced in the past 17 years range from the students he’s taught to the immense change in technology that has swept our world.
“When I first got here, there were no computers. In 17 years, now everything in computerized,” Degner said. “It’s great, but I want the students to know that they can do it on their own, too. These changes are coming more and more rapidly, and they aren’t going to be experts on everything, but I want them to be able to question the resources and say, ‘Why?’”
Through all of the changes in subjects taught, class sizes, and technology, it all circles back to teaching students the big picture and teaching them to be strong students, as well as strong and independent individuals.
“I want students to know that they can achieve whatever goal they want, and it’s just a matter of perseverance,” Degner said. “I want them to know how to be tolerant of each other and to help each other. I think if we create good thinkers, they’ll go a long way.”
There is no doubt that Degner has touched the lives of the hundreds of students that have come in and out of his classroom in the past 17 years. There could never be another occupation so close to his heart.
“If I was to go into an occupation today, I’d go right back into teaching,” Degner said. “I fully recommend it. Are you going to get rich? No. But you are going to get more satisfaction out of it than you can believe.”