The day after Dee McKee learned her big brother Mike Kelly died in a plane crash, she went to school as usual.
“I just felt that this was a place that I would be buoyed up, and that’s exactly what happened,” said McKee.
KTVA 11’s Teacher of the Week was flooded with cards and condolences from students and staff at Palmer Jr. Middle School. She used the opportunity to teach her students a valuable life lesson.
“I told these kids, ‘You are going to watch me go through a process here and I will be deeply sad,'” explained McKee. “‘At the other end of it, I’m going to come out of it and you’re going to see Mrs. McKee as I normally am and I want you to notice that because you’re going to run into a tough spot in your life.'”
Although careful not to scare them, McKee didn’t hold back from telling them the honest truth about her brother’s passing. That straight-shooting style is how she’s known to operate — her students are held accountable and always know where they stand.
“They trust teachers,” said McKee. “They have to be able to look at what you’re saying and doing is the real deal. That’s essential.”
McKee balances her toughness with tenderness. Visiting her classroom, you get a sense she genuinely loves her students as she works to capture their hearts.
“If you’ve got their heart, they will work harder. They get self esteem from that,” said McKee.
She called it an “absolute honor” to be part of a student’s life and hopes to make a difference with the time they’re afforded. She said that outlook has been the key to her success.
“I think teachers take very seriously our, what’s called in loco parentis, which means in place of the parent,” said McKee. “I want to do for these kids what their parents want me to do and what the parent would do in my place, because they’re trusting me with their treasure.”
In a classroom filled with middle-schoolers, she also has to capture their attention, for which she relies on spontaneity.
“They’re never quite sure what’s going to happen,” explained McKee. “I could just burst into song to illustrate a point, or speak in an accent, or just do something off the wall to keep them interested because when you do that, they are there.”
McKee has taught at Palmer Jr. Middle School for 20 of the 21 years she’s been teaching. Her husband, George, is a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member.
Know a teacher making a difference in students’ lives? Nominate them for Teacher of the Week.