Kris Kennedy knows that it doesn’t take much to reach a student.
Sometimes it’s a laugh or a song, other times it’s a dance or jumping rope. Then on days when the world may seem unbearable, it’s a silly hat on a grown-up’s head.
As the 2018-19 Mahomet-Seymour school year comes to a close, Kennedy, who is retiring from her position at Middletown Prairie Elementary, can leave knowing that her reach has impacted students for 28 years.
An interest in teaching began when Kennedy was an elementary student herself. She idolized her P.E. teacher, Mr. Grant.
“I said to my mom and dad, ‘I think I’m going to be a P.E. teacher,’ ” she said. “And my parents were like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
“My parents didn’t go to college. But I went to Michigan State and got my P.E. degree.”
After graduating from college in the 1980s, Kennedy couldn’t find a job teaching the subject she loved.
Without a law mandating physical education, music or art for students, Michigan did not offer those subjects to students in public schools.
Instead, Kennedy was placed in a classroom. She went back to school to finish her Elementary Education endorsement, then subbed from 1986-1987.
Shortly after, she moved to Central Illinois when her husband, Terry, accepted a job offer at the University of Illinois.
Kennedy was then able to begin her career as an elementary school P.E. teacher at Champaign’s Kenwood Elementary School. She taught there for five years before switching to part-time work in Mahomet as she also cared for her young daughter.
When a position as a P.E. teacher opened up at Sangamon in 1994, Kennedy stepped in and held the post for 14 years.
“In P.E., my goal is to make them physically active, I want them to take away that exercise isn’t always a terrible thing or that it’s horrible,” she said. “I want them to take away that we can be physically fit and still have fun.”
Part of having fun was introducing a roller skating unit to first- and second-grade students.
Kennedy ran the unit at Kenwood, but relied on the help of fifth-grade students to tie the student’s shoes. At Sangamon, Kennedy was blown away by the help of parent volunteers, who came with strollers.
Parent volunteers also played a huge role when she moved to a second-grade classroom in 2008.
“Parents were coming in reading to kids and recording podcasts,” she said. “They also signed up to bring the Healthy Food of the Week for all of the students to try.
“I wanted to make sure those kids had fun, but walked out with what they needed to know,” she said.
Having fallen in love with dance as a teenager, Kennedy drew from her movement and music background to make sure children knew things like the water and the bones in the human body.
“When I was teaching first and second grade, I was teaching the “bone: song. It was cranium, clavical, sternum, vertebrae…in my skeleton…,” she sang.
“I have parents coming up to me saying, ‘When my child got to high school, that song was in their brain and they did really well on their bones because they could remember it.’
“You really can implement music in any area.”
With this mindset, Kennedy moved to a new position teaching music, P.E. and iPads to kindergarteners at Middletown Prairie Elementary when the building opened in 2013.
“When I started at Middletown, I didn’t think the kindergartners would be much different than the first-grade students,” she said. “But the first couple weeks of school, they are crying and sad because it’s the first time away from mom and dad.”
With a small collection of funny hats at home, Kennedy came up with a plan.
“I found the more I wore some weird hat, the more distracted they were,” she said.
Parents even wait to see what hat Kennedy will wear each morning.
With 120 hats, including a cheese head, a light-up Christmas tree, two weeks of Halloween hats, a bee hat and a conehead hat, parents and students are usually not disappointed.
“The kids are so distracted by what’s going to be on that lady’s head that school’s not so bad,” she said.
“I wore a conehead hat, which only the parents get, and one parent stopped and asked if I was from France.”
For Kennedy, the great thing about working with the “littles” is that they are not only discovering the world, but also their own ability.
Blending together tempo, movement and music, Kennedy has helped students learn about rhythm and how to jump the long rope, among other skills.
“I love when you see that rhythm thing click and they are doing it,” she said. “You get to see when it clicks for them.
“I really love working with the littles. It’s just seeing all that development. The bad side is that they don’t remember me by the time they are in fourth grade.”
Like many other teachers at Middletown and Sangamon, friendship is something Kennedy found among her colleagues.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. I feel blessed,” Kennedy said. “I left Sangamon, I was really sad about that because I had a lot of really close friends there. Sangamon is a family; everybody takes care of everybody.
“And you know what? It’s the same over here. Everybody just wraps around. If you have an emergency or if something is going on in your life, it’s not so bad, I’ve been really lucky.”
As a second grade teacher, Kennedy fell ill with pneumonia. She remembers laying in her classroom while her husband tried to help her get ready for the sub.
“Gay Fritz was there saying, ‘What do you need me to do now?’
“Those people just bend over backward to make sure it all works,” she said. “Hilda Carper was our ‘supersub’ then. She stepped in, and all the second-grade teachers chipped in, helping her with what to do. When I came back, (the students) hadn’t missed a beat.”
With a retired husband and many colleagues who retired 10 years ahead of her, Kennedy has been awaiting her own retirement.
Her husband built an airplane in their garage, and the couple has enjoyed taking small trips for lunch or a quick weekend getaway since then.
While her friends have allowed her to attend retired teacher’s dinners, she is looking forward to being “officially” retired with them.
But retirement doesn’t always look the same for everyone. Kennedy already has trips planned to Scotland in September, a girls’ trip to Chicago and she will visit Florida for two weeks this summer.
She is also looking forward to spending volunteer hours at Krannert and the Virginia Theatre.
“I won’t be sitting around,” she said.