Influencer of the Week: Neil Harrison, The First Academy

Neil Harrison has been the Upper School math instructor for 15 years.

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Neil Harrison is a beloved Upper School instructor at The First Academy. Whether it's being prepared academically for college or the life lessons and encouragement he offers students, Royals repeatedly say they can't imagine their time at TFA without having Harrison as a teacher. He has helped develop a thriving math department, as well as inspired the passion of students for computer science, engineering and physics.

He teaches precalculus; physics, AP and honors; and AP computer science. He is the Math Department head and has been nominated for Christian Educator of the Year three times. 





School: The First Academy

Position: Upper School math instructor

Time at school: 16th year

What brought you to your school?

I knew about the school from attending First Baptist Orlando. I started substitute teaching there, which was supposed to be a temporary job, but I fell in love with teaching and the school.


What do you love most about your school?

The atmosphere is great; it's a family. As I've taught here for the past 15 years, I've become a parent myself and my kids have come up from 4K all the way to middle school. I teach the kids of my kids’ teachers all the time. Most of all it's the students, though. Year in and year out there are such interesting and rewarding students to teach, to build relationships with and to learn from myself.


What is your motivation?

I love cultivating an interest in the subjects that I love. I also love demonstrating to students that Christian beliefs and scientific, logical thinking are not mutually exclusive but can go hand in hand.


What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When former students tell me how much my classes helped them through college, it makes me feel like I'm doing something important. I also love helping students find their passions. It seems like every year I have a student in my Computer Science class who enters the class on a whim and leaves the class declared as a CS major in college.  

It's also great developing longer-term relationships with students. Sometimes I teach the same student two to three years in a row. There are also former students who I still keep in touch with.  


What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love spending time with my wife and two kids, playing games or just going for walks. I also love to play guitar.


Who was your favorite teacher when you were in school? Why?

Mr. Jeselnik taught ninth-grade Honors Biology and Chemistry. I was in a fairly small public school in a small rural town, but he really challenged us as an honors class in our first year in high school. He had great discussions with the class, wasn't afraid of questions and held us to a high standard. I still remember the hand cramps at the end of his tests (all paragraph-length answers).


When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I always expected to go into engineering of some sort  — it's what my older brother did, and I knew my interests and abilities aligned with it. I ended up with a master’s in Materials Science and Engineering from UF, but at that point I felt called to work with students in a church setting. What I never expected was the combination of the two, teaching math and sto students in a high school setting. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since my grandfather, mother and sister have all been educators.  


What is your favorite children’s book and why?

Anything by Mo Willems, especially the Elephant and Piggy books. We discovered them when our kids were just starting to get too old for them but still enjoyed them a lot. They are hilarious, but sometimes pretty deep.  


What are your hobbies?

Guitar playing, collecting and tinkering — I've even built my own tube amp. And Magic: the Gathering. I've always loved games, and this is one of the best. I love the mental puzzles and optimization involved. I'm actually a Certified Level 1 M:tG judge, which is a great tidbit to pull out in a nerd-off.


If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

Teleportation. Think of the time savings. Much easier to visit family who live far away as well. You could see all of the interesting places in the world without setting aside weeks for the trips. Thirty minutes extra sleep in the mornings wouldn't be bad either.


If you could only listen to three bands or artists for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?

Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Metallica. This might be easier if I had five, but there would still be a few left on the cutting room floor that I'd be really sad about. I've already mentioned guitar, and all three of these bands have great guitar — but also inspiring guitar. I enjoy listening to music that makes me want to play it myself. I grew up with ’90s music, and then my tastes expanded backward instead of forward.



Amy Quesinberry

Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.

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