Kennedy-Allin purposely looks for ways to involve students in the process

September 11, 2019

Weyburn teacher Karen Kennedy-Allin is shown at the Prime Minister’s awards ceremony in Ottawa.

When it comes to the ongoing trend towards student-focused education, you can count Karen Kennedy-Allin among the biggest fans.

The Weyburn Comprehensive School educator, who was recently presented with a Certificate of Teaching Excellence at the 2019 Prime Minister’s awards, is all about preparing her students for what lies ahead by striving to provide them with independence.

“That swing to make education more student-focused is huge in my eyes,” Kennedy-Allin said during a break from attending her first meeting as one of the newest members of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation Executive.

You see it’s not just that she is a tireless advocate for her students, it extends to advocating for the province’s teachers as well. In fact, she confided that it is a trait she has had since she was a high school student herself, “and it was a major part of what made me decide that I wanted to be a teacher.”

While being reminded of the time commitment required to be a member of the Executive, on top of her role as president of the South East Cornerstone Teachers’ Association and teaching physics, biology and environmental science, Kennedy-Allin had a bit of a chuckle about the “probability” of finding time. She noted that she has decided to step back from some of her out-of-classroom duties, such as her work with the Ministry of Education and her role as a provincial facilitator.

“It was always in the back of my mind to run for the Executive. My philosophy has always been that it’s easier to change a system from the inside, and so my commitment was to see if I could come in and help make a difference.

“I’ve been enjoying advocating for teachers and it seemed like a good time to take it to the provincial level. I have stepped away from a few of my other involvements because I want to do well and not spread myself too thin,” she explained.

As part of her new-found involvement at the provincial level, Kennedy-Allin said she is intrigued by the political side, having already talked with Premier Scott Moe and Education Minister Gord Wyant.

Like many colleagues, Kennedy-Allin is troubled by some of the recent developments in public education, not the least of which have been to experience the harmful funding cutbacks. Regarding the politicians with whom she has interacted, she has her perspective.

“I think they understand the plight of teachers, but honestly I think they [Saskatchewan Party] are too focused on their conservative ideas. I’m not sure they realize the societal benefits of a strong education system. I think they are missing the point in that regard. Investing now will result in savings later in all aspects.

“I’m not sure how, but education seems to have lost importance and we have to realize the education funding model can’t be sustained with these cuts,” she added.

Confirming that she is never scared to try new things, Kennedy-Allin added that “I have always strived to be a different kind of teacher and to experiment with different pedagogies. I think I’ve accomplished that, and I think you have to keep learning to be at your best.”

Her analysis is based in significant part to her own introspection, reflecting on her early days in the classroom when she became a wholehearted devotee of the inquiry, project-based model.

“I tried to do too much too fast and I put too much of it into the students’ hands, so I had to pull back a bit and find the balance. I took baby steps until we had that balance and that’s not the way I am,” she freely conceded.

Kennedy-Allin cited a conference she attended at the University of Waterloo as having been transformative to her teaching practice. “It was an international conference on theoretical physics, and I learned so much. It just clicked for me to realize the importance of student engagement, and I try to grow to that every semester,” she said. This confirms her belief in a saying that has been attributed to her–students will not care until they know you care.

Her willingness to embrace student voice in the whole teaching process was highlighted in the media release that accompanied her award, in which it was pointed out she conducts a survey among her students at the end of every semester in an effort to gain the sort of constructive feedback that can lead to improvements.

“That has been very valuable. It’s not always going to be something you might like to hear and it can be hard sometimes. But the input from the students can help you remember that different strategies work for different kids,” she observed.

Suggesting she coined the phrase, Kennedy-Allin alluded to the “merry-go-round” approach to problem solving that includes a circuit of eight work stations, each with a problem to solve.

“It has worked great and the students are excited and you get 100 percent engagement. Every student is assigned a job and a role and nobody gets to sit back and just let it happen. It makes the thinking very visible and I can see what is going on. A lot of times it can be very beneficial and you see there are different ways to solve the same problem. There have been lots of times when I never would even have thought of it that way,” she said, while recalling that she kind of backed into physics in her early years of teaching. Today, however, she offered that “physics is my life,” adding her licence plate says “Physix.”

One of the sources of inspiration that Kennedy-Allin has revelled in is the new curriculum, which she had no small part in constructing along with three other Saskatchewan educators.

“That was so exciting to have been part of because we knew we would be able to transform it,” she said, while lauding the work of longtime facilitator Dean Elliott, whom she said did a really great job.

“He [Elliott] let us go and then he would pull us back but he was not afraid to make changes and so we were able to modernize the curriculum. As physics teachers in the classroom, we knew what would work and I think this has really taken hold,” Kennedy-Allin said.

Her passion for science has been an inspiration for her two sons, Brandon, who just graduated with a pharmacy degree at the University of Saskatchewan, and younger son Keith, who has already made it clear that he sees his future in the sciences, which makes their mom understandably proud.

It’s that same inspiration she is passionate about instilling in her students, as well as emphasizing the importance of relationships.

“I don’t think of teaching as a job–it’s who I am. This is what I always wanted to do,” she said in reflecting on how her career has evolved since entering the profession in 1992.

“I definitely don’t feel like I am nearing the end of my career. I am always striving for self-improvement, even if sometimes I have been scared. I dedicate this award to my students past, present and future because you are the reason why I do this, and I care so deeply about this. I have my own family and my family at school,” Kennedy-Allin said during her acceptance speech.

“I would also like to recognize all the teachers that have shared their skills and practices with me over the years. All I really needed to do was have enough courage to implement things that I have learned from others that came before,” she summed up.