Alumni in Action

Donna Mitchell

Jeanne Boohaker

Troyce McCullar

Tamela Thomas

Amy Rosato Novak

Martin Nalls

Lessons That Last

By Roger Shuler

Some teachers knew they were meant for a life in the classroom from their first day in kindergarten. Others didn't realize their calling until they spent a lifetime doing something else. But whether they passed through the halls of the School of Education as traditional students or middle-aged second-timers, these alumni say their UAB experience prepared them to prepare their own students for a lifetime of success.

Donna Mitchell: Taking a Special Path

alumni_mitchellThe route Donna Mitchell used to take to and from band practice changed the course of her career. Mitchell enrolled at Alabama A&M with the idea of becoming an engineer. But one day after band practice, she stopped to watch a group of special-needs children with their teachers.

"I used to walk past them all the time, but one day I sat down on top of a hill and watched for two hours," Mitchell says. "I saw how the kids interacted with the teachers and how the teachers responded."

That experience led Mitchell to change her major to education. She is now in her 31st year as a teacher, serving as principal at Inglenook K-8 School in Birmingham. Training in special education is valuable for all teachers, Mitchell says—her own classroom experiences "taught me that each child is unique. You need to find their successes and build off those."

These successes become Mitchell's own success stories. "I recently saw a young man I had taught at Center Street Elementary," she says. "He works in housekeeping at UAB Hospital, and I ran into him at Wal-Mart. He still lives at home, but his parents are so proud of him."

Mitchell has seen dramatic change in special education. "When I started teaching in 1977, there were so many things we didn't understand about special education," she says. "The teaching methods have changed, so we now can recognize a student's deficit area and give them immediate help. When I started, no one understood the timelines involved with special needs. It might be two years from the time a student was identified until he received services."

Mitchell moved into administration after teaching at six Birmingham schools. "I got into leadership because there was so much I wanted to see done with special education. One of my mentors told me that the only way to effect change is to become a leader."

Jeanne Boohaker: Filling the Language Gap

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Jeanne Boohaker's background seems ideal for her role as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) at Berry Middle School in Hoover. She was born in Lebanon and lived there until she moved to the United States at 20; her husband, who was born and raised in the U.S., is also of Lebanese descent. Boohaker focused on raising the couple's three children, but she decided to return to college (she had two years of higher education in Lebanon) when her oldest daughter turned 18.

At age 40, Boohaker enrolled at UAB and earned a bachelor's degree in French and education. She completed a master's in ESL last summer. "It was quite intimidating to go back to school at 40, but UAB is such a wonderful place, and it caters to people of all ages."

When people think of ESL, they probably envision a teacher working with a child whose native language is Spanish. But Boohaker says that is not always the case. "This year we had a student from Guinea, and he spoke the Sousou language. We're seeing a lot more immigrants in Hoover who speak Arabic. And there are a lot of families who speak Japanese or German, with a parent working at Honda or Mercedes."

Though the majority of Boohaker's students are from Mexico, they come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, she explains. "Your previous literary skills are very important when you learn a second language. Some of our kids from Mexico have gone to very good private schools, and that helps them pick up English. Some have had very little schooling, so you have to fill in those gaps."

Instruction in ESL is critical in an increasingly diverse society, Boohaker says. "You see immigrant children in just about every school system now. In the past, teachers didn't know how to teach them, and the students often were put into special education. But many of them were very smart kids whose only problem was that they didn't speak the language."

Troyce McCullar: In Memory of McKenzy

alumni_mccullar2Troyce McCullar has had a richly varied career. He served in the U.S. Army and worked in sales before starting a car-restoration business called Car Farm. Along the way, he earned a bachelor's degree in business at UAB. McCullar's wife is an accountant, and they live on a farm near Smith Lake, where he raises cattle.

Yet as McCullar approached his mid-50s, he felt drawn to teaching and entered the master's program at the UAB School of Education in August 2006. Less than a month later, his son McKenzy was killed in an automobile crash. "He was 18 and had just enrolled at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville," McCullar says.

McKenzy served as his father's inspiration for going into teaching. "He suffered from ADD [attention deficit disorder], and I saw the trials and tribulations he went through to finish high school," McCullar says. "There is such a need for special-education teachers, and I wanted to help kids who had the same kind of challenges."

McKenzy's death has helped confirm McCullar's move to a career in education. "It was sort of rough in the master's program competing with kids who were about half my age," McCullar says. "But it was a totally enjoyable experience."

McCullar is completing graduate courses at UAB and working as a special-education teacher's aide at Cold Springs Elementary School.

McKenzy played a major role in helping his dad with business and farm chores. McCullar says his son's spirit is at the heart of his work in special education. "For my wife and me, he's the inspiration for everything we do."

Tamela Thomas: Living Laboratory

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"We have to teach students how to become scientists. You don't get that by teaching to tests. The cures for HIV and various cancers are out there. But students have to learn to think first.... These kids are at ages where school often is the last thing on their minds, and science is a subject they think, ‘What will I do with this?' [So] we try to bring everyday scenarios into the classroom, to make it come alive."
—A biologist by training, Tamela Thomas returned to her home state to take part in UAB's fifth-year master's program, earning her degree in 2006. She teaches science at Leeds Middle School.

Amy Rosato Novak: Matters of Trust

Amy Rosato NovakAmy Rosato Novak owes her teaching career to some wise advice from her husband. Novak earned a bachelor's degree in English at UAB and worked as a volunteer in the hematology/oncology unit at Children's Hospital, with plans to get a master's degree in social work.

"My husband, who was my fiance at the time, said, ‘What do you want to do in your life?' I said, ‘I want to work with kids, I want more than two weeks off a year, and I want to make a difference.' He said, ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher?' I found out about the fifth-year program at the UAB School of Education, and that seemed like the perfect route for me."

Novak has fond memories of her student-teaching experience in a second-grade classroom at Pinson Elementary School. "You are part counselor, part psychiatrist, part mother, part friend," she says. "The children would confide things in me that I'm pretty sure no one else knew. One child would tell me, ‘I have a crush on so and so.' Another would say, ‘My mom and dad are fighting all the time.' They open up and trust you so much. You really hold the future in your hands."


Martin Nalls: Key to Success

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"If you perform poorly in the ninth grade, it will reflect on your high-school transcript forever. Some national studies have connected high dropout rates to poor performance in the ninth grade. If you get off to a good start, it's much easier to complete high school."

—As principal of Hoover High School's new Freshman Campus, Martin Nalls is charged with helping ninth graders get that good start. Nalls began his own career with plans to become a police officer, but after earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from UAB in 1993, he soon decided his future was in the classroom. He has since earned an administrative certificate and educational specialist degree from UAB and is working on his doctorate.

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