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Sulphur Springs teacher awarded ‘best in state’

For Diana O’Neal, to truly understand science, you have to hold it in your hand. For it to become important to you, she said, you must be able to apply it to your life.
That’s that philosophy O’Neal carries with her each and every day she steps into her Sulphur Springs classroom to teach middle school students the wonders of science.
This fall, it was the philosophy that won her the admiration of her peers as O’Neal was awarded Tennessee Middle School Science Teacher of the Year by the Tennessee Science Teachers Association.
But it’s also a philosophy that has helped win her the admiration and respect of her students.
“I tell them I don’t care what you do, there is going to be science in it,” O’Neal said. “And whatever you do, I want you to understand what your doing and why you are doing it. I want my students to have some confidence in the science of it all.”
O’Neal’s fascination with and love of all things science came as something of a surprise to the Limestonenative. For the first portion of her life, she happily pursued a career as a dental hygienist. When she began to look into the possibility of a career change into teaching, she realized she had already been doing the prep work for more than 20 years.
“Being a dental hygienist all about one-on-one education,” she said. “Part of your job is to educate your patients, helping them understand what they need to do and why.
“As a teacher, it’s the same thing on a larger scale.”
Science, she found, was the perfect vehicle. “I did not realize when I was their age how much I would utilize science,” O’Neal said. “
With science, there is so much to explore on both a large and small scale. O’Neal likes to utilize active learning in her classroom, which may be filled with pine branches one day and various rocks the next.
“I could not do what I do every day if I did not have such a supportive principal,” O’Neal said, laughing. “We can get pretty loud and messy. But I try to bring in things that apply to the students lives and help them better understand the science of everything.”
Her trusty science teacher tool kit is already full and getting fuller every day. “If you really want to know what I am, I am the ultimate science thief,” O’Neal said. “I’ll get my ideas anywhere I can.”
Her ultimate goal, she added, is to produce students who can look out into the world with confidence gained through a better understanding of life’s mechanism — whether it is the changing of the leaves or the growth of a cell.
And while she is pleased with the TSTA’s recognition of her talents, she doesn’t put too much emphasis on it.
“In some ways, it’s hard to accept,” O’Neal admitted. “There’s not a teacher in this building who isn’t working as hard as I have. We all just want our students to learn.”