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2018’s 20 Under 40: Leigh Neier, MU College of Education

Leigh Neier

Associate Teaching Professor and Director of Elementary Education, MU College of Education

Age: 37


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but I quickly share that I’m ‘from’ Columbia.

Years lived in Columbia:

My family and I moved from Tampa, Florida to Columbia in 1993. 24 years later, Columbia still has my heart.

Tell us about your job:

As an associate teaching professor for MU’s College of Education, I teach teachers! In other words, I’m in the business of connecting heads to hearts. Each day, I challenge my students to consider their own educational philosophies — as teachers, how will they connect with students who arrive at school from a home characterized by trauma? What is the plan to build not only A+ students, but, more importantly, A+ citizens? While curriculum and grade level standards are a part of this conversation, in my opinion, the best future teachers will be prepared to address what’s not on the lesson plan. And that’s where the work of connecting heads and hearts begins: as we develop savvy, empathetic, and bold teachers, let’s challenge them to understand the complexities of the 21st century while keeping a heart for the students who will look to them as lifelong role models.

Who is a mentor in your life and how have they impacted you?

My list of mentors is deep and wide: I’m fortunate to call Mike Alden (retired MU athletic director) Otto Maly (Maly Commercial Realty), Jeff Smith (JES Holdings), Teresa Maledy (Commerce Bank), Sara Harper (House of Brokers), and Kathryn Chval (College of Education) professional and personal mentors. And although each of these mentors has helped me to find my voice as a leader, the mentor who made the biggest impact on me early in my career is Terry Wilson of Wilson’s Fitness. I had the privilege of working for Terry and his family for almost 12 years. From Terry (and his sister, Tina Price), I learned that there’s no replacement for exceptional customer service, that knowing people by name matters, and that the best leaders do not sit behind — they roll up their sleeves and embrace the hard work that others may overlook. I’m certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with Terry. And even though the business of education is different than Terry’s signature fitness enterprise, there is much more overlap than meets the eye, especially when you look through the lens of the customer’s experience. No matter where my career leads, I will always reference the Terry Wilson playbook to build a better brand where relationships will always come first.

What are some misconceptions about your job?

The second weekend in May is always a bittersweet time of year for professors. With each  class, it becomes more difficult to say goodbye as our newly minted College of Education graduates walk across the commencement stage. These students become a big part of my world during their years at MU. My students are nothing short of family, and like all ‘work families,’ I spend more time with my school family than my real family. Of course, joy overcomes my sadness knowing that our graduates leave the College of Education with their dream jobs as K-12 grade teachers, invitations to attend graduate school, or the promise of international travel to teach abroad. Still, each spring brings a mix of emotions that reminds me how great it is to have students who make saying goodbye so difficult.

What was the last professional goal you accomplished?

I was recently invited to take a seat at the leader’s table for two campus efforts to re-imagine certain aspects of the Mizzou student experience. To serve our campus outside of my academic house at the College of Education is always a goal. Spoiler alert: 2018 is going to be a big year for MU and its students. Stay tuned . . .

What motivates you?

There is no more motivating force than having a twin sister who just happens to be your best friend, too. My twin, Stacy, is faculty member at Loyola University Chicago, so together, we challenge each other to be better teachers and to find balance outside of school when needed. She motivates me to be more grateful every day! Being a twin is pretty awesome.

What’s your favorite community project?

Not all Columbia Public School elementary students love snow days. It’s true; each semester, without fail, my students who complete internship hours in host schools throughout the district realize that snow days are not all fun and games when it means that a CPS student may be without food until school is back in session. Our conversation quickly transitions to community resources, like the United Way. If not for the United Way and its support for partner agencies like the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri, we would be almost defenseless against food insecurity. When I was approached to serve as lead chair for the 2016 MU United Way campaign, the decision was easy — I was all in. And even during a season of fiscal uncertainty for our campus, Missouri Tigers answered the call to help their neighbors. Countless volunteers from across campus, the UM System, and MU Health Care contributed to our success. On Saturday, September 16, to officially close the 2016 campaign, we presented a check from MU to the United Way for $540,665. And while my three-year leadership role for the MU United Way campaign also came to a close, this will always be a special accomplishment for me and continues to be my favorite community project.

What is one business goal you have for 2018 and how do you plan to achieve it?

My most exciting (albeit ambitious) goal is to leverage every resource available to make MU’s College of Education a destination for elementary education. I’m talking School-of-Journalism style: let’s get on the world’s map! To start, I want to tap into our young alumni, who can wholeheartedly speak to the ways in which the College of Education positioned them for professional success and personal fulfillment as career educators.

What trait do you most want in a co-worker or employee?

Hands-down, I most admire my colleagues who are detail-oriented, strategic, and are willing say no before they’re an automatic yes. Admittedly, I’m not hardwired to read the fine print or to think with my head before my heart jumps in and says, “Let’s go!” Therefore, I gravitate towards my teammates who can provide a much-welcomed balance to my leadership style.

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