For the first time in 30 years, Northern Lights Public Schools will start a new school year in September without Kathy McKale on staff.
Kathy, the beloved principal of Cold Lake Elementary School, is retiring at the end of June.
Teachers have a huge influence on children’s lives. A good teacher can inspire a student not just to do their best, but to be their best. They can complement the love a child gets from their family, and they can offer a child some of the support that may be missing from their home lives.
Love has been the hallmark of Kathy’s style as a teacher and as an administrator.
“She just made the classroom feel loved,” said Amy Haskell, one of Kathy’s former Grade 6 students (Haskell is now 36). “It was a loving classroom. She just treated us like her own.
“We had a bunch of different kids, a bunch of different personalities, and she seemed to be able to nail down how to deal with all of them. And she did it in such a respectful way, she was never condescending,” Haskell said.
“And there was a respect for her. A lot of people respected her because she was just so nice about how she did things and the way that she said things. She was never demeaning or harsh to anybody.”
Brian Thiel has worked with Kathy for 24 years of his 25-year teaching career. In fact, her influence on him started before he was officially hired.
“I first met Kathy on my interview day at the old Grand Centre Middle School. She gave me an informal tour of some of the school,” Thiel says. “Kathy likes to talk a lot, and she kind of gave me a little informal interview, as I found out later. She went in and told the principal that I might be an okay hire.”
“She hasn’t changed too much in the 25 years that I’ve known her,” Thiel adds. “She’s just a warm individual. She loves everyone. She’ll do anything for you.”
Haskell agrees that Kathy’s generous spirit is a big part of what sets her apart—but at the same time, she was always in control.
“It’s a very thin line between being their friend and being that adult responsible for them as well,” she said. “She just made it look easy. And it probably wasn’t, because she had three kids of her own at home, and she looked after the canteen, and she was a busy, busy, woman. She just made it look effortless.”
Thiel remembers teaching in the classroom next to hers. “Her class totally loved her. She used music wherever she could to help reinforce different concepts. That’s the thing I remember most.
“She wasn’t scared to be a little kooky to get the students’ attention and get them tapped in. She always seemed to have something in her bag of tricks to reach even the kids who are struggling in her class. So it wasn’t just that she was a good teacher; she was a good teacher for every student, regardless of their abilities.”
Thiel says Kathy, as a principal, maintains a positive mood among the staff. This, he says, keeps the whole team working for the students’ benefit in an atmosphere where they know they are supported. It does indeed make the work seem easier.
“You can be having a bit of a rough day and you go talk to Mrs. McKale and she’ll brighten your spirits up. She’ll bring you up when you need bringing up, it doesn’t matter what,” he said.
“She always has an open-door policy, you can go in and talk to her about anything. And if you have any new ideas or anything that you’d like to try with the students, she’s very willing to help out where she can. She likes staying in touch with her teachers and seeing what’s working in the class.”
Haskell says it’s clear Kathy’s motivation has always been doing the best for the students.
“You hear about a lot of educators getting into teaching or administration because they want to be able to have an impact on somebody. And I think if that’s the reason why Mrs. McKale got into teaching, then she hit that nail on the head,” Haskell said.
“She’s just the best.”
Sadly, life can take a cruel turn. This spring, with retirement on the horizon, Kathy’s husband Homer passed away.
Homer had shared his love of model railroading with Kathy, and the two of them took special delight in creating “toy-train” displays for the students at Christmastime. Like any couple, the two had plans of spending a long retirement together.
Now, as someone who has devoted her life to sharing love and kindness, Kathy is finding people are eager to show their love and support for her.
Kathy and Homer’s son Adam said she has strong support from family and the community. “It’s time that she took a step back and let others take good care of her,” he said.
Retirement won’t necessarily come easily for Kathy, especially under the circumstances, Adam said. But she will be able to take satisfaction from the lives she has changed and the people she has helped..
“I think it’s surreal for her right now to think about hanging it up, and it’s such a tough transitional time given everything that’s going on,” he said.
“But I know that when things calm down, and when she has some quiet reflection on it, she’ll
finally have the opportunity to rest and be proud of herself and be proud of her life’s work.”