Jessica O’Neal teaches more than numbers at LaGrange High School

Published 2:00 pm Friday, December 24, 2021

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The LaGrange Daily News is writing a profile on all 25 teachers of the year in the Troup County School System.

After graduating with a degree in kinesiology from Georgia Southern, Jessica O’Neal never would have been able to guess that she would be teaching algebra at LaGrange High School. Yet upon receiving her diploma, she quickly realized she did not have the heart for the day-to-day work her kinesiology degree offered her. She considered nursing, but ultimately decided on teaching and started working at a middle school shortly after.

“Being in middle school, I think was really good training. It makes high schoolers easier because [middle school] is like throwing you in the trenches,” O’ Neal said. “I had a really good mentor when I first started teaching in middle school, and she taught me how to balance being tough, but also a little bit lenient, like tough love.”

James Bozeman, the assistant principal at LHS who helps manage the Freshman Academy, describes O’Neal as innovative in how she teaches her students the content.

“She’s innovative. It’s interesting to go into her class and watch her teach,” Bozeman said. “She is very creative in the way that she uses outside content to make it relevant for her students. A lot of times, she has these little scavenger hunts. I’ll see them if [I’m in my office] and kids are all out in the hall. I’ll pull up my cameras, and I’m watching the halls while I’m in here.”

Bozeman said he commends O’Neal for the extra effort she puts in with any student who might need help with math at LHS.

“She’s up here every day after school tutoring kids, whether they’re her kids or whether they’re some other teachers,” Bozeman said. “I can leave here at 5:30 or 6 o’clock sometimes, and she still has seven or eight kids over there that may or may not be hers, which is awesome.”

O’Neal said she strives to never be the teacher that students remember as the reason they hated school growing up.

“I never want to be that teacher that someone was like, ‘I have always hated school because I had this one teacher who did this,’” O’Neal said.

Oneal posed with her two children in front of Sweet Roast’s Christmas Tree. (Photo/Iris Hersey)

O’Neal said her two children inspired the way she teaches and the classroom atmosphere she’s created /

“If this was my child, what kind of teacher do I need my kids to have? Every day, what kind of teacher do I want them to have?” O’Neal said.

She said her daughter’s activities and homework in elementary school showcased how much is involved for all students.

“Being a mom has helped me see the full picture. It’s not all about me, and it’s not all about my subject. They need to get what they need to at school,” O’Neal said. “They need to have maybe a little bit at home, but at the end of the day having her stuff after school and having that autonomy and having that freedom to express herself.”

Bozeman said he saw O’Neal’s dedication to her students during the pandemic as she still made herself available to them despite not being able to come to campus.

“I would walk into her class [and] the sub every day would get the projector set up with the laptop. She’s at home while she’s in quarantine, and she’s teaching her guts out to those kids that are there, whether they’re virtual or in person,” Bozeman said. “Kids were in there, and they’re interacting with her because you can speak, and they can hear on both ends. For me, I guess you could say that’s one of those moments.”

Outside of school, O’Neal goes on road trips with her family and even her fellow teachers’ families.

“We just travel, and we go because we’re teachers. We have the whole summer, so let’s just take our kids all over the place,” she said. “It’s a really good bonding experience road tripping, and I think for [my kids], too, seeing the world and seeing the United States and being patient with each other. I think they learn so much from camping.”

O’Neal said she could not do everything she does in her role at LHS without the support of her faculty.

“Every year is hard, but what I found at LaGrange is a group of people that support each other. We’re a big faculty, but we’re all very supportive,” O’Neal said.

“We just got finished playing this huge faculty-wide snowball fight. It’s things like that, that keep me going. We have fun with each other.”