Thomas County School System officials have named Melissa O’Neal, third grade teacher at Cross Creek Elementary, as the District Teacher of the Year. O’Neal has worked for Thomas County Schools for 21 years.
Upon being named Teacher of the Year for the system, O’Neal said, “What an incredible honor! I am beyond thrilled and deeply grateful to be recognized as the Teacher of the Year for Thomas County. Teaching has been my true calling and passion in life, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of my students every day. This award is not only a recognition of my passion for teaching, but also a celebration of the collective efforts of our entire educational community.”
O’Neal currently teaches 3rd grade, having previously taught pre-kindergarten, 1st grade, 4th grade and 3rd grade. She has taught various academic levels such as special education inclusion, ESOL, and gifted students.
Cross Creek Elementary School Principal Ashley Lane said that O'Neal is deeply committed to the field of education and to the noble profession of teaching.
Lane said, “Ms. O'Neal has a true heart for teaching. She embraces the profession and dedicates her time and attention to the needs of her students. She often states that her students are her heart.”
O’Neal said that from the moment she stepped into the classroom, she knew that teaching was her true passion.
“The joy and fulfillment I feel when I see my students grow, learn, and succeed is unparalleled,” O’Neal said. “I am deeply committed to providing a nurturing, inclusive, and engaging learning environment where every student feels valued, supported, and inspired to reach their full potential.”
As Teacher of the Year, O’Neal serves as a spokesperson for teachers and students. She encourages other teachers to take the time to know and understand their students.
“When we build personal relationships with our students, we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and passions,” O’Neal said. “We can tailor our lessons to their individual needs and engage them in a way that is meaningful to them. This not only leads to better academic outcomes, but also increases student motivation and a greater sense of fulfillment for us as teachers.”
O’Neal believes that creating a safe and supportive learning environment not only helps students succeed, but also allows them to grow academically and as individuals.
She said, “My ultimate goal as a teacher is to encourage my students as life-long learners and to realize the amount of potential they each possess. I work hard to create personal connections with each of my students, and I feel like this enables them to feel supported and valued in my classroom.”
O’Neal’s believes that learning extends beyond the walls of the classroom, and she encourages them to connect with their community and apply their learning in real-world contexts.
“I explain to my students how even small contributions can make a big impact, and we discuss the importance of giving back to our community,” O’Neal said. “Seeing their hard work and dedication is incredibly inspiring, and it helps to dissolve the walls of the classroom by connecting them with a larger purpose.”
The Teacher of the Year (TOTY) process began in February. School winners were judged on a written application and an interview before an impartial committee. Judges submitted independent ratings for each candidate, and the person with the highest overall average was named District Teacher of the Year.
Robin Cartright, Curriculum Director, who oversees the Teacher of the Year process, said, “We are so very fortunate to have such dedicated and innovative teachers in all of our schools. The interview panel had a very difficult job in selecting the 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year. We are delighted to have Melissa O’Neal represent Thomas County at the state level.”
O’Neal added, “I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the selection committee, my fellow educators, administrators, my amazing students, and the entire community for recognizing my love and passion for teaching. This award is not just a reflection of my individual accomplishments, but also a testament to the unwavering support and dedication of my family, colleagues, mentors, students, and their families who have been instrumental in my journey as an educator. I am honored and privileged to be a teacher, and I am wholeheartedly committed to making a positive impact on the lives of my students and our community through education.”
O’Neal holds a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and a Master of Education in Elementary Education with a concentration in Reading from Thomas University as well as endorsements in Gifted Education and ESOL (English to Speakers of other Languages). O’Neal is currently pursuing her Education Specialist degree in Educational Leadership while working as a graduate assistant at Thomas University.