From a class of thirty to a class of one: Mrs. Ellen McKee says goodbye

English+teacher+Ellen+McKee+has+spent+over+a+decade+as+the+resident+of+K237.+The+Knight+Crier+is+next+door+in+K239%2C+and+we+are+saddened+to+say+goodbye+to+our+beloved+%27neighbor.%27

Knight Crier

English teacher Ellen McKee has spent over a decade as the resident of K237. The Knight Crier is next door in K239, and we are saddened to say goodbye to our beloved ‘neighbor.’

What roles do you play in life?

You may be a parent, a child, a teacher, a friend, or even all of those and then some. If asked, we likely all have one role that we could declare as our most important. While she is also a friend, teacher, colleague, mentor, daughter, wife, mother, and soon-to-be grandmother, for Mrs. Ellen McKee, that role is a student. After a 35 year career at North Penn, that student has decided to retire.

“We had an in-service day a few years ago where we were asked to write, on a 3-by-5 card, 5 roles that we see ourselves playing in life. People wrote down ‘teacher, parent, wife, etc.,’ and the first thing that I wrote down was student. When I got up and we had to share, I was like ‘Oh, yeah! I’m a wife too. I’m a mom too!’ They weren’t foremost. At first, I felt kind of bad, but I think that I have learned through the years how much I don’t know and how exciting it is to learn new things. That is just what drives me. At heart, I’m just looking forward to always being a student,” McKee said.

That is just what drives me. At heart, I’m just looking forward to always being a student.”

— Mrs. Ellen McKee

 

Since 1992, McKee has been a student (and English teacher) at various locations across the North Penn School District. She began at NPHS for a year, moved to Penndale for nine, back to NPHS for another year, then to Northbridge for four, then back to NPHS in 2005, where she has stayed ever since.

“I’m like Goldilocks; I go all over and find out which [place] fits the best. I tend to get antsy after six or seven years…I like to be able to move around. I really love North Penn because it’s so big that it has so many different teaching opportunities. Look at all the opportunities I had with just a secondary English degree. I was able to teach in three different schools,” McKee said.

McKee is known for her ability to make connections with often marginalized or underserved students and sparking a passion in them for English through events like LitFest, Vocab Bowl, and Gatsby Live.

“I’ve had good success with 4.0 because…a lot of those kids just need a little extra support or time. English is not their thing or they have other issues going on. I had a brother who would’ve been in those classes, and he was treated horribly by his teachers. I kind of threw myself into 4.0 because I wanted to be the teacher that I wished my brother would’ve had. I really poured my heart and soul into never giving up and trying all different kinds of angles,” McKee said.

“One thing about teaching reluctant English students, or kids who have deficient skills in English, sometimes the standard approach doesn’t work, and you need to be creative. A lot of times, those are kids who have had difficult experiences in school, and are naturally insecure. They don’t like school because they haven’t been successful at it. I always tried to address that first by making my room a welcoming, family feel, so they would feel comfortable trying. That’s where things like Vocab Bowl and all that crazy stuff I did—it was born out of the need to make school fun for them, as well as academic. I really feel like, over the last 35 years, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve for trying to reach as many kids as I can,” McKee added.

When it comes to inspiration for her creative teaching methods, McKee doesn’t have to look far; it practically runs through her blood.

“My mom was an elementary teacher for 30 years, and I grew up watching her devise her lessons, which are always much more creative. In the elementary school, you kind of have to really mix it up a lot. She, too, always had a soft spot for the underdog, for the kid that was struggling and was feeling insecure about his or her skills. A lot of my best lessons were my mom’s lessons that I’ve recycled and used,” McKee said.

The McKee family lessons continued to be recycled, now at Council Rock, where McKee’s daughter Rachel, named after her grandmother, teaches. Beginning when her mom taught at Penndale, Rachel began to come in for Take Your Daughter to Work Day (a day she “grew up living for,” according to mom) from approximately ages 5 to 14. Rachel caught the teaching bug.

“Those days, I’d always have a fun day planned, so she could participate in it, so she would always see the fun lessons that I taught. A lot of that she has brought with her; the spirit of friendly competition in the classroom and things like that. I know that she uses that. My husband and I truly feel, like every parent feels, that she is the best part of me and the best part of him, and even one better. The kids of Council Rock are very lucky kids. She’s got a lot of good lessons up her sleeve,” McKee said.

McKee has reached 35 years of being a teacher, which is the milestone around which many teachers choose to retire. “Mother Nature cooperated,” as Rachel McKee is due to give birth to her first child in December, setting up the perfect time for her mother to retire.

“I have two step-daughters, and one of them has children, so I have actually two grandchildren that are in high school, but this is Rachel’s first and the timing is right. It is at the time when I’m right at the end; it’s been 35 years, and that’s usually when most teachers can go out. I’m quite young, because I didn’t actually stop teaching when I had my daughter as some women decide to do. I just plowed right through, threw my kid in daycare and went. I kind of missed those years, so I’m grateful she was able to plan all that so it coincided. Mother Nature cooperated, and it turned out to be right when I was ready to retire. I said to my eighth period, I’m going to go from a class of thirty to a class of one. I’ve been teaching Moby Dick to kids who are asleep and drooling for years, but now, it’ll make sense,” McKee joked.

I said to my eighth period, I’m going to go from a class of thirty to a class of one. I’ve been teaching Moby Dick to kids who are asleep and drooling for years, but now, it’ll make sense!”

— Mrs. Ellen McKee

McKee emphasized that she still has energy left, as she is only 58, so her retirement was not caused simply by the spark going out.

“I never got tired of teaching, that’s not the reason I’m retiring. I am not the kind of teacher who has been counting the days down. I still get a kick out of the kids, I still love designing lessons and talking about literature. I have not burned out from that. So I think I still have some more in me,” McKee said. “It’s time to do something else. The universe said ‘The grandchild is coming. It’s time.’ My husband is retired, my parents are aging and need me. It’s just time.”

Teachers all across the country had to reinvent the way they teach this year, but McKee is no stranger to shaking things up when it comes to her lesson plans.

“I’ve never been the teacher who has the whole year planned out. I am not the teacher who can say ‘It’s March. Let me go grab my packet on Hemingway.’ I reinvent every year. Not because I’m cool or anything like that; it comes from a place of insecurity. I always end the year thinking I could do better with Fitzgerald or whatever; I’m so hard on myself. I rarely have anything that I want to do the same way, and when I do luck out and find something in my G-Drive that could work, I look at it and think ‘Ugh! How could I possibly teach that?’ I’m very used to redoing everything because I do it every year. It was not that bad for me,” McKee explained.

What McKee did struggle with was her sudden inability to form real connections with her students, a core element of her teaching style for decades.

“The problem was that the kids weren’t here. When somebody asks me from the outside ‘What’s it like this year as a teacher?’ I just say it’s twice the work and half the fun. The kids are what it’s all about. You guys are hilarious. I still get such a kick out of you, and when I got to hear them chatter again, you know, ‘This is sus’ and all the cool things they say. When you see them really react to what they’ve read, that’s the magic. You can’t see that when cameras are off. That killed my spirit. It killed all of our spirits. To teach to a blank screen is just punishing. It breaks your heart,” McKee said.

In some ways, ending her 30-plus year North Penn career in such an unconventional environment will make it easier to say goodbye, as McKee won’t have to face a room of 30 kids five separate times and get overcome by emotion.

“In a way I’m glad, because it’ll be a little easier to walk away than if I had the whole group, and it would get really emotional. It’s hard. This is a hard year. It’s been hard to envision me without being a teacher. That’s been my whole life for 35 years. It’s how I define myself. As a teacher and a student. I get so much joy and love from the kids…that’ll be gone. It’s hard to walk away from all of that energy,” McKee said.

McKee also dreads having to say goodbye to the English department, in particular, her fellow 11th grade American Literature teachers.

“I’ve been really lucky. In our department, you kind of divide into smaller groups, so the group that teaches 11th grade is a pretty tight group. Manero, Weizer, the years that I co-taught, I taught with a special education teacher Mrs. Poole, she was my comrade in arms…it’s hard. That’ll be a huge step back. I will still be texting. And Cardboard McKee will still be here. She ain’t going anywhere. It’s definitely going in Manero’s room. He will be haunted by me forever,” McKee joked.

McKee’s department is not quite ready to say goodbye to her either, especially McKee’s “bestie,” fellow English teacher and Friday afternoon Chick-Fil-A partner-in-crime, Mrs. Elizabeth Weizer.

“I met Mrs. McKee when I was a struggling young teacher, and she helped me find my voice in the classroom. She made me see that the most important thing was fostering positive relationships with my students and creating a safe environment in which a love of learning could flourish. Watching her expertly navigate difficult situations with students gave me the model to follow in order to become a teacher who centered kids in all I do. Her endless creativity always inspired me to keep tweaking and refining my lessons, looking for some new way to engage my students. Every good idea I’ve had in the classroom has come from a conversation I’ve had with her or a lesson she shared with me,” Weizer shared. “Planning LitFest with her or riding her coattails on Gatsby Live! and Haiku U!, always left me in awe of her freshness and joy. She truly loves to teach and gives every moment her all. I can’t overstate the impact she has had on me, not just as a teacher, but also as a wife, mother, and confident woman. Mrs. McKee has a way of knowing the exact right thing to say to put life into perspective and bring me up out of any funk I find myself in. I don’t know how I—or we—will survive without her next year.”

She truly loves to teach and gives every moment her all. I can’t overstate the impact she has had on me, not just as a teacher, but also as a wife, mother, and confident woman. Mrs. McKee has a way of knowing the exact right thing to say to put life into perspective and bring me up out of any funk I find myself in. I don’t know how I—or we—will survive without her next year.”

— Mrs. Elizabeth Weizer, fellow 11th grade English teacher

As McKee prepares to close this chapter of her life, she has already written the first sentence of the next chapter.

“I’m hoping to teach part-time, to be daycare part-time, and I also play the violin. I used to play in a quartet at weddings. It’s a nice little side-hustle. I’ve had to put that away just because I’m so exhausted from teaching. I’m hoping to get to Settlement Music School and get back into chamber music and violin,” McKee said. “That, teaching, grandparenting…it certainly won’t be this pace.”