At Pocopson, teacher’s puppy love prevails

Pocopson Elementary School first-grade teacher Kelli Kahn has been named a Citadel Heart of Learning finalist for the second time.

Pocopson Elementary School first-grade teacher Kelli Kahn has been named a Citadel Heart of Learning finalist for the second time.

Proof that the Pocopson Elementary School staff can keep a secret: A first-grade teacher was the last one in her building to learn that she had received a prestigious honor last month.

Beloved first-grade teacher Kelli Kahn is shown with the "pups" in her class. Photo courtesy of Tara Sammar

First-grade teacher Kelli Kahn is shown with the beloved "pups" in her class. Photo courtesy of Tara Sammaritano

Kelli Kahn said she was just catching her breath after rushing her students to a safety assembly when she heard what everyone else already knew: The safety topic was a ruse. The whole school had convened because Kahn was one of 15 finalists for the 2015 Citadel Heart of Learning Award for Teacher Excellence.

The program was created by Citadel and the Chester County Intermediate Unit to recognize, honor and thank excellent teachers throughout the county.  Now in its 13th year, the coveted award generated 2,700 nominations for 1,200 teachers this year, which was eventually narrowed to 15 finalists – one from each Chester County school district, one from the Chester County Intermediate Unit and one from a non-public school.

“I was totally stunned,” Kahn said. Even after Principal Andrew McLaughlin explained that the purpose of the assembly was to announce a Citadel finalist, Kahn said she expected to hear the name of a co-worker.

Making Kahn’s recognition even more special is the fact that she’s one of only three repeat finalists in the history of the program – and the only one in the Unionville-Chadds Ford district to be named a finalist twice. Kahn received the distinction previously in 2005, making her ineligible for two years.

“I didn’t even know I could get this again,” she said. “It’s such an honor, and I’m so flattered and grateful.”

Even though Kahn registered shock, her colleagues and the parents of her students shared the opposite reaction, repeating words like well-deserved, special, creative, enthusiastic, kind and empathetic.

Kelli Kahn serves as top dog in her puppy-themed first-grade classroom at Pocopson Elementary.

Kelli Kahn serves as top dog in her puppy-themed, first-grade classroom at Pocopson Elementary.

Krissy Pelegrino said her daughter, who had Kahn three years ago, still visits her beloved first-grade teacher daily. Pellegrino said she didn’t realize until attending one of the poetry readings that Kahn periodically schedules to showcase her students’ talents that the whole class shared her daughter’s excitement.

“Kelli has a special gift of knowing how to make every kid feel special,” Pellegrino said. “I remember going to Parent Night, and my husband and I found her to not only be hilarious, but also just a person who radiated love ... of life, of kids, of teaching.”

Pellegrino said her niece, who was studying elementary education at the time, visited Kahn’s class and later proclaimed: "I want to be that kind of teacher.”

"Kelli inspires kids, parents, and any adult who meets her,” said Pellegrino.  “I've worked in the education field for 15 years and never has someone been more deserving of this award!”

Tara Sammaritano said she felt like a double lottery winner when she learned that her daughter would be in Kahn’s class since her son was in her class two years earlier. “I couldn’t have been more thrilled,” Sammaritano said. “My son loved going to first grade every single day, and now my daughter’s the same way.”

Sammaritano, who is serving as Kahn’s homeroom mother this year, said she is repeatedly astounded by the depths of Kahn’s warmth, passion, and creativity. “She loves these children like they are her own and she makes them feel so special,” said Sammaritano. “She’s a true master of what she does. “There really should be a Kelli Kahn award to encourage other teachers.”

Even without such an award, inspiration has occurred, several of Kahn’s colleagues said.

Julie McGirl, who teaches second grade at Pocopson, described the positive impact Kahn had on her career when she began teaching 13 years ago and spent two years on Kahn’s team. “Everything I learned from Kelli was priceless – all this time later, you can surely still find methods, habits, etc., I ‘stole’ from Kelli back then in action in my own classroom, and how I wish that the way I do them could possibly live up to the way she does!”

McGirl said that even though she switched to second grade 11 years ago, she still visits Kahn’s classroom “to breathe in some of her passion, her creativity, and her perspective.” McGirl noted that Kahn always remembers that she is working with 6- and 7-year-olds, intuitively tailoring educational projects and activities to their individual needs. “She really does get right to the heart of learning,” McGirl said.

"Pooch Smooches," one of the ways that Kelli Kahn stresses positive reinforcement, are coveted by her students.

"Pooch Smooches," one of the ways that teacher Kelli Kahn stresses positive reinforcement, are coveted by her students.

Another second-grade teacher, Caitlin Murray, said Kahn was assigned as her mentor when she began working at Pocopson, a pairing that represented Murray’s “most valuable teaching experience.” Murray said Kahn “is the type of person who puts a smile on your face because she really cares about you and knows you” – a sentiment her students appreciate.

“She is able to create projects that engage the students to the point where they don't realize they are working because they are so busy enjoying themselves!” said Murray.

Kahn said teaching was never a foregone conclusion. During her sophomore year at West Chester University, her roommate, who had been a nursing major, decided to switch to early childhood education, and Kahn, who was undeclared, thought it sounded interesting, followed suit, and got hooked.

Her first teaching job was at St. Agnes in West Chester, where she taught second-graders. She said she loved the experience, but after having 37 students in one class, she feared burnout.

She said she applied to the Unionville-Chadds Ford district and was offered a first-grade position. “I remembered thinking: How different could it be?” she said. “I learned it’s a whole different animal.”

But it ultimately became an animal that Kahn adored. She said she was inspired by a colleague with a classroom called Kitty Cat Alley. Doggedly determined to provide her own playful educational theme, she created Puppytown, Pa.

Since its genesis more than 15 years ago, Kahn has passionately amassed a collection of puppy stickers, paper, posters, and fabric that would be the envy of any pet store owner. Images of dogs, paws, and bones decorate all available wall space. “Who doesn’t love puppies?” she asked.

To reinforce the theme – as well as good behavior - Kahn distributes Pooch Smooches every day, coveted notes that recognize a student’s act of kindness or an academic achievement. A prodigious note-writer, Kahn said she encourages the students to respond, fostering one-on-one communication.

Kahn embraces the creative outlet her job provides. Once a year she transforms a desk, chair or stool for the Art and Garden Show’s silent auction, an exercise that involves “dogging up” the piece of furniture, she said. She also relishes the 4th and 5th Grade Talent Show, which annually features a grand finale by the teachers.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” she said, citing costumes that have run the gamut from super heroes to Shrek. “The kids love it, too – especially seeing their teachers dancing.”

On May 5, Kahn will join finalists from all school districts in Chester County at the banquet for final awards. All 15 finalists will receive $500 to use in their classrooms and a glass award handcrafted at Glasslight Studios in St. Peter’s Village.

Dave Lichter, a fifth-grade teacher who has worked with Kahn for about 12 years, said Kahn creates high expectations in an environment of unconditional love and trust “that allows all else to fall into place.”

“She teaches from her heart and it is quite evident that when she was born, she was destined to be the best first-grade teacher a kid, and parent, could ever want for their kid's first experience in school,” Lichter added.  “Kelli sets the stage for a love of learning and a zest for life . . .”

 

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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