On paper, Karen McKenzie teaches middle school students language arts at Sugarloaf School. In actuality, she’s imparting so much more.
“When you have a positive attitude it fuels your energy. When you have a positive attitude, you can really fly,” she said. “I try to teach my kids this life possibility.”
McKenzie was recently selected as Monroe County School District’s Teacher of the Year. Superintendent Mark Porter came in person to impart the news.
“When my superintendent came into my classroom and announced it, he had to say it a couple of times,” McKenzie said, laughing. “I heard it, but I didn’t hear it. It was so big.”
McKenzie has been teaching her entire life and in the Keys for the past 11 years. She was born in Tennessee, but raised in South Florida only to return to Carson-Newman College in the Volunteer State. She also attended Barry University in Miami Shores where she took post-graduate courses in Marine Biology.
She teaches an afterschool program about the sea at Sugarloaf.
“We go snorkeling and set up tanks,” McKenzie said. She said she has had a lifelong love affair with the ocean — fishing, diving, snorkeling, paddling, shell collecting, island hopping and surfing.
Former colleague and current Marathon Middle School teacher Tracy McDonald said McKenzie’s marine biology program is “amazing.”
“One day she had a typical 6th grade language arts classroom and the next day I had to do a double take. I felt like Jacques Cousteau exploring the underwater realm. I still have no idea how fifteen saltwater tanks were set up overnight,” McDonald said. “The kids can’t help but be excited about Mrs. McKenzie’s class.”
McKenzie is constantly looking for ways to engage the students. Most recently, she’s introduced a superman theme in her classroom — posters adorn the walls and props are scattered about. Everyone is encouraged to identify with a particular superhero, including McKenzie herself; or as she’s sometimes known, “Wonder Woman.”
“I have the outfit — T-shirt and bracelets,” McKenzie said. “But the reason I did it was because I wanted to capture the hearts of my boys. I wanted them to know they are warriors and superheroes.
“It’s worked,” she said with satisfaction. “I’m getting some excellent writing.”
Sugarloaf School Principal Harry Russell said McKenzie has many strengths, but the most important is her ability to connect with the kids.
“When kids can’t wait to go to your class, then you hold them in the palm of your hand when it comes to educating them,” Russell said. “She’s just a very positive person who believes in her studnets and their ability to excel.”
McKenzie said she feels it was “destiny” for her to end up teaching at Sugarloaf School, a K-8 facility in the Lower Keys. She speaks highly of her colleagues.
“The staff is just extremely collaborative and they are the ones that put me on this path,” McKenzie said. “I am just so blessed and privileged. They have made me the teacher that I am.”
As a seasoned professional, she has some advice for new teachers:
“Go for the kids’ hearts. When kids know you care about them, they will listen and open their minds.”
And, “Bring a childlike amazement and fascination to what you do because that is contagious and refreshing.”
Although, McKenzie briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an architect, there has never been a question about her purpose on Earth, she said, which is to teach.
“It’s never boring. Things can change on a dime. And I enjoy being with kids. It makes me feel young and energized,” McKenzie said.