Hats off to retired M-S teacher Kris Kennedy who helped children overcome growing pains

Kris Kennedy has been teaching children since she was 13. So when the specials teacher at Middletown Prairie Elementary School retired two months ago, it was no surprise that her tentative future plans include subbing for the Mahomet-Seymour School District.

"I want to see what the new building looks like, so I'll probably still come back because I've made a lot of good friends," Kennedy said.

Long before she graduated with a physical education degree from Michigan State University, Kennedy assisted with dance and gymnastics instruction.

"I kind of had that background, and then when I was in college, I was working after-school programs and I was just always finding jobs like at the Y teaching life saving," she said. "It just kind of fit. I'd already been teaching since I was like 13."

After subbing for two years post-graduation, the Royal Oak, Mich., native moved to Champaign when her husband, Terry Ruprecht, took a job at the University of Illinois.

She launched her teaching career as a physical education instructor at Kenwood Elementary in Champaign. The dual-certified elementary educator soon landed in the classroom, splitting her time between teaching children how to read in the reading recovery program, as well as continuing to teach P.E.

Once a teacher herself, Kennedy read Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie" and was motivated to write a letter to her P.E. teacher Jim Grant. After her mother was able to locate his address through her former elementary school, Kennedy thanked the teacher for inspiring her.

"I said, 'I just want you to know that you were a big influence on my life and so that's why I went into P.E.'" Kennedy wrote in the letter.

In his reply, Grant wrote, "I'm 73 years old and I just can't tell you how much I appreciate getting a letter from a student like that."

Kennedy carried that inspiration in her part-time instruction, which led to her becoming a first-grade teacher for a year before she had her daughter.

After taking a few years away from her career to raise her daughter, Kennedy set her sights on a substitute position at Sangamon Elementary School.

In 1994, she began instructing P.E. at the elementary school, where she would work for 14 years until she became a second-grade teacher in 2008.

Kennedy enjoyed the classroom and the opportunity that it gave her to truly know and grow with her students.

"It's really rewarding," she said. "You really get to know that group of 24 kids, but I was putting in a lot of hours."

So in 2013, Kennedy took a "crazy" chance at a new position, teaching kindergartners physical education, music and even how to use iPads at Middletown Prairie Elementary School.

"It's been really fun," she said, "but I had to adjust."

It turns out she wasn't the only one going through a big change. In helping pre-K and kindergarten students arrive each morning at school, Kennedy saw her fair share of growing pains.

"It was their first time away from home for some of them," she said. "They were always crying in the morning."

Kennedy had to think of a distraction for her students to ease the transition from the car to the classroom. She looked no further than a collection of hats her daughter gave her from her swim meets.

"I started to wear a different hat each day, and as it turned out, it became a big deal and everybody was waiting to see what was on my head in the morning," Kennedy said.

"It's pretty cool," she added. "It all started because I was trying to figure out how you get those little guys out of the car without them being, 'I don't want to go! I want my mom!' And you don't want to rip 'em out. So when this crazy lady with the wild hat comes out, they're just kind of stunned."

The distraction from first-day jitters eventually evolved into a game for the students and their family members.

"One little girl said, 'My grandma guessed you were going to wear the beaver hat today,'" Kennedy said. "It's kind of fun."

Other joys of teaching for Kennedy included the ah-ha moments when students finally understood the subject material.

"Like when they're doing jump rope and they're all really afraid of it and I tell them that they can jump and that first time when they do it, you just see their face light up," Kennedy said. "It's really rewarding. It really is."

Though as much Kennedy taught her students in her 32-year teaching career, she also "learned a lot from them."

"I wish I could spend five years with them," Kennedy said. "I wish I could have been with them every year through those years to see them grow."

Kennedy takes delight when she bumps into former students, and when she does, she often asks if they remember her.

"I really enjoy when I go to the grocery store and they're the cashier at the register or I see them and I say, 'I don't know if you remember me, but I was your P.E. teacher,' and some of them remember me and some of them don't, but I've learned a lot from kids."

In her 28 years with the M-S district, the biggest lesson Kennedy took away from her students was patience.

"It's been a really good ride," she said.

Though Kennedy is enjoying her first few months of retirement, she knows the reality of it all won't fully hit until Aug. 17, when the first school bell rings.

"I'm going to be in Dallas helping my granddaughters getting ready for school and that's when I'm going to be like, 'Ah!'" Kennedy said. "This is the first time in 32 years that I haven't been starting school somewhere."

But she's ready for it.

"It's time," she said. "I feel like I am so lucky because both places that I've worked, I've just really enjoyed the administration and my fellow teachers. If something happens to you in either building, we take care of each other and you don't always get that."

Now, Kennedy hopes to fill her days with endless travel. In fact, she and her husband already have a trip to Scotland planned this fall.

The couple look forward to even flying his airplane for weekend getaways without the constant worry of schedules.

"If it rains or the weather's bad, we don't have to panic and say we can't go because it might be cloudy and rainy on Sunday."

When not en route, Kennedy can be found sitting in her backyard using her new camera to take pictures of the hummingbirds.

And while she enjoys the relaxation, Kennedy is certain of one thing — she will find her way back into teaching.

"One thing I'm thinking of doing is going back and forth to Florida," she said. "I told my husband there's a niche for senior citizens to kind of go over iPads and teach them how to work with their grandkids and what kinds of things they can do."

"I'm still thinking about teaching," Kennedy added.

Categories (2):News, Education

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