Science graphics, dog photos, wrestling images and inspirational phrases plaster the walls of Karen Kearney’s classroom at Buchholz High School.
Kearney grew up donning Buchholz’s signature black and gold, attending football games and wrestling matches, which were teams her father coached. After graduating from Buchholz, she began her career as a chiropractor.
But she couldn’t shake the idea of becoming a teacher.
“My dad is a teacher,” she said. “He encouraged me not to become a teacher, so I became a chiropractor. But I still had this burning desire to be a teacher.”
In 2002, Kearney returned to her alma mater as an anatomy teacher. With an ever-present interest and background relating to the human body, anatomy seemed like the obvious subject choice.
“I'm one of those crazy teachers who will teach about something and say, ‘Isn't that exciting?’” Kearney laughed.
Her passion for the subject led her to walk the stage at Alachua County Public Schools’ teacher of the year ceremony. On Jan. 26, Kearney won the Alachua County Teacher of the Year award among 39 nominees from every school in the county.
Kearney teaches an honors-level anatomy course to high school students who choose anatomy as their science elective. She uses a hands-on approach to her teaching, often using labs to deepen students’ understanding of the material.
Kim Humphries, Kearney’s best friend since the third grade and fellow Buchholz graduate, said whenever she receives medical information, she calls Kearney because she’ll find interest in it.
Kearney echoed that sentiment in her acceptance speech at the ceremony: Students will ask, “My brother broke his arm. Do you want a picture of the X-ray?”
Humphries, whose children Kearney taught, said Kearney's passion for the subject is evident in her interactions with students.
“They can sense her sincerity,” Humphries said. “She wants them to get it. She wants them to have an ‘aha’ moment.”
She wasn’t surprised when her friend received the award, Humphries said.
I’m just incredibly, incredibly proud, to be able to call her a friend and to see her rewarded for the craft that she has so dedicated her life to,” she said.
Kearney’s return to Buchholz was lacking one key element from her childhood: the wrestling program. In her second year of teaching, Kearney took it upon herself to reestablish the program her family had grown up watching.
“We do a family reunion thing every year where we go to a wrestling tournament,” Kearney’s brother Kevin Kearney said. “To be around that sport with family is one of my greatest memories.”
The anatomy teacher was adamant about pursuing the program and refused to let potential problems go unaddressed, she said.
When the Buchholz wrestling program was discontinued in 1999, the mats were donated to Gainesville High School. Kearney got them back. A friend in her graduating class donated $5,000 to help with transportation and tournament fees.
“[The administrators] had no choice but to say, “Yes, let's start this program,’” she said.
Inside her classroom, Kearney believes in a similar type of determination. She sets her expectations early and keeps them high throughout the year, Kearney said.
As the year progresses, Kearney said the students learn to complete assignments, keep their phones off and pay attention.
Kearney’s students often participate in hands-on activities and labs, including dissecting sheep brains and cow bones. She also uses labs to explore the effects of drugs on the brain and muscular fatigue.
Aiden Brake, a 17-year-old junior at Buchholz who’s currently enrolled in Kearney’s class, said he wasn’t surprised by her winning the award. Her teaching is interactive, he said, and her breadth of knowledge makes the lessons about the human body enjoyable.
“She’s really into what she teaches,” Brake said. “I had a gut feeling she’d be able to win it all.”
While Kearney was humbled to win her school’s accolade, she was unaware of the district-wide vote until afterward.
“To win the whole thing is humbling,” Kearney said. “I'm proud to be representing Alachua County.”
Kearney will now represent ACPS for the Florida Teacher of the Year award, for which the winner will be announced in July 2023.
Contact Peyton at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @peytonlharris.
Peyton Harris is a first-year English major and the News Assistant for The Alligator. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and spends her free time re-listening to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and binging Criminal Minds.