The year was 1972, rain was pouring from the skies and high school student La Vonne Neal knelt down to get in position to begin her 50-meter hurdles race. Her feet slipped out of the blocks, but her determination to win set her into overdrive.
As Neal crossed the finish line, she was bombarded by news cameras and microphones. She had known she had been first to cross the line, but without today’s digital recording times, she had no idea what her time was.
“The reporters were saying ‘You just set an American record,'” Neal said. “It was the craziest thing I had ever heard.”
Neal’s record time of 6.6 seconds remains unbroken to this day. A member of Philadelphia Track Hall of Fame, Neal no longer runs the hurdles, but the determination and drive that came from deep down within has never left her.
Now a professor of education and director of Secondary Education Certification at Southwestern University in Texas, Neal uses the drive that once accomplished extraordinary feats to help others.
For the next week, Neal will be at the College as a visiting professor. She has taken a two-week sabbatical from Southwestern to share her knowledge and innovative teaching ideas with the College.
“I am visiting because I prepare teachers, and The College of New Jersey is a wonderful university that prepares teachers,” Neal said.
During her stay, she will sit in on classes and share her experiences and ideas with both students and faculty at the College.
Neal is an entrepreneur of a consulting firm called “Learning Pathways, L.L.C.,” which studies “culturally responsive teaching methods.”
“We examine ways to inspire children – text books and standards are not enough,” Neal said.
Neal believes a curriculum must be relevant and responsive to benefit children. Also, she said it is a teacher’s responsibility to make learning work for the student.
“National test scores are lower than ever, and we as teachers need to do something about it,” Neal said. “It’s not the student’s fault; it is the teacher’s. If you blame it on a student that would be like a doctor saying, ‘You are sick because you want to be.'”
Neal studies urban middle school students to see the effects of some new teaching methods. She aspires to share her research with teachers and students through books, new curriculums and presentations inside and outside of the classroom.
Neal completed her own middle school education at Sayer Junior High School. There she met her biggest supporter, her seventh grade teacher, Ms. Certaine.
“She was a constant voice for me,” Neal said. “She was a great role model and was always pushing me to reach higher.”
After junior high school, Neal attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, an all girls school that aims to maximize the potential of each student. Afterward, Neal attended La Salle University as a political science major and continued participating in track.
Neal was the first female to graduate from LaSalle’s ROTC program. After graduating, she entered the U.S. Army.
“There were times in boot camp I felt as if I could go no further, but in-spite of the exhaustion I found a way,” Neal said. “I ascended my own physical limits.”
Neal spent 13 years as an Army officer and was one of the first women in the military to ever hold a field position. She served at Ft. Hood during the Cold War as a Soviet Weapons and Tactics Battle Field Officer. She said that the army taught her the skills she needed to be a true leader.
“One of the most valuable lessons I learned in the Army was to lead by example,” she said.
After leaving the Army, Neal attended the University of Texas at Austin and received a masters and a Ph.D. in multicultural education.
She then began teaching middle school in Texas. During this time, Neal realized that teachers need to go beyond what is written in textbooks.
“If you can make teaching relative to the student, the connection goes beyond your imagination,” she said.
The idea of “leading by example” would stay with Neal long after she had left the military and would carry her to the top in the corporate sector.
Neal held various corporate management positions, one of which was in package management for McNeil, a pharmaceuticald company, during the Tylenol tampering crisis.
In 1982, McNeil discovered that numerous bottles of its Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules had been laced with cyanide. Seven people had died as a result. Neal helped create the tamper-evident packaging, which can now be seen on Tylenol and all drug packaging.
“It truly revolutionized the business,” Neal said about the crisis.
Neal said that her success in her management positions can be attributed to the military. Neal explained that in her management positions, she would work among those under her, rather then separate herself from them.
She could always be found walking out on the production floor. Because of this, people trusted her instead of fearing her.
“I have found in management that if you take care of the human needs the humans will take care of what they need to do,” she said.
The last 40 years have made Neal a remarkable resource for all.
Watching her speak in front of a class at the College, it is easy to see that her diverse experiences and accomplishments have made her strong leader who is dedicated to education.