Karen Palko; The Origin Story

From teaching PE, coaching dance, organizing Malaysia Week, to helping with the performing arts shows, there is one fire-haired teacher that does it all. If you have been a part of the ISKL community in the past 35 years, you know Ms.Palko.

After working with Ms.Palko personally for several years; it’s hard not to see and hear what she means to other students.  As we sat, in her drama studio, a middle school student just happened to be looking at a dusty old plaque in the cabinet that read “Teacher of the Year Award 1996.” When asked about it,  Ms.Palko explained that she had been nominated for and won this award years ago, despite not actually having any teaching credentials! Of course, she has her MA and credentials now, but at the time she literally walked in off the streets, and changed people’s lives, the perfect beginning to Palko’s ISKL journey.

Even though this charismatic teacher is loved by her students, little is known about her childhood. Ms. Palko grew up in foster homes in California and explains how growing up in that school system changed the way she saw education. “California school systems were always experimenting, and because I was skipping around grades a lot, I was always in all these different programs. In 3rd grade I did not go to school for a year, I had a mentor… and did a passion project on collecting rocks,” she says. “I lucked out because I didn’t have a normal or traditional education, but kept getting selected into new educational initiatives.” She explains how she was a very good test taker and this streamed her into a variety of stimulating programs. In high school she got to be on the Science Study Team, which meant she studied hermit crabs for a semester.

While Ms.Palko didn’t grow up to be a geologist or a hermit crab doctor; motivated by her teachers, she immersed herself in education. “My life was 100% based on school….I grew up in foster homes, so teachers were like my parents… I lucked out, people always sheltered me and pushed me along every step of the way”

Her 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Barber, would pick her up from her house and take her to the public library, where she was then allowed to check out as many books as she wanted instead of the public library limit of 5. “My teacher knew I was ready to read more, so she let me,”

Another one of her fondest memories was one of her 5th-grade teacher giving her an awesome Christmas present: several years-worth of spelling books! “In grade 5, my teacher knew I was in foster home support, didn’t get a Christmas present, so she asked me what I wanted, and I wanted the next years spelling book, and she got me like 10, and I did them all as fast I could.”

Ms. Palko then went on to say, “stuff like that happened all along the way for me… because of everything teachers did for me, it’s 1,000 percent the reason I am a teacher today. And it wasn’t just the teachers…it was my coaches as well. During the school day they taught me subjects, but after school they taught me life. I am still in touch with several of them and they are still parenting me!”

While she thought she would end up working with kids, teaching was not always what Ms.Palko had in mind; she was initially interested in becoming a counselor. After college Ms.Palko joined the Peace Corps in Malaysia. Her first encounter with ISKL took place as she was to take the GRE test, she was earnestly trying to complete her educational degree. After sitting in MPR 2 taking the test, she met one of ISKL’s counselors at the time, Larry Jones, who invited her to a party.

As Ms.Palko was crushing it on the dance floor, ISKL dance teacher Aggie Brenneman approached her and complimented her dancing and asked if she could teach a dance class. Ms.Palko said yes, and showed up at ISKL to a classroom full of students in leotards. With zero experience in teaching modern dance or any other subject for that matter, Ms Palko accepted a fulltime job, even going a step further, agreeing to teach PE and agreeing to teach Bahasa Malaysia as well. Having no clue how to teach any of those things, Ms. Palko went out that night and enrolled in a Bahasa Malaysia class, a dance class and bought a book on how to teach basketball. One of the teachers who actually taught Ms. Palko was our very own Mrs. Kandibhan, our current Bahasa Malaysia teacher who actually took over from Ms. Palko several years later!  

Ms. Palko went on to teach Bahasa for years, as well as a myriad of other subjects. She realized quickly that teaching was her passion. She recalls that when she got her first paycheck she couldn’t believe she was being paid for doing something she enjoyed so much “I remember when I saw the money, I just started walking down the halls throwing it everywhere, Stupka and others will remember, I stood in the parking lot and thought, I actually get to do this and they are going to pay me. I cannot believe I get to work with kids and be entertained and have fun because for me it was never about the money, it was always about being with kids.”

Just like that, Mrs.Palko was a part of the lifeblood of ISKL. Ms.Palko’s teaching over the years has inspired students in our school. When asked what advice she would give to people who want to become a teacher like her, she said “Beg, Borrow, and Steal. I used to watch how other teachers taught their class and put the effort in to learn their techniques and took what I thought worked well for me. If you think you know it all, or always know how to do it the best, you will not be successful.” She went on to say, “if you want to be the best you need to learn from the best. The reason I got that (Teacher of the Year) award was not because of me, but because of all the people that I learned from who shaped me. A single flower doesn’t grow alone in a meadow.”

Ms.Palko concludes by saying that if you want to be a teacher, you can be. You just need to work hard, and like any other profession learn as much as you can, and finally, just do it! In her classes, if she spots a student whom she thinks can do a better job than she can, she will give that student the opportunity to lead the class.

Ms. Palko is one of the longest members of the faculty at our school. She never seems to run out of energy and can manage everything that comes her way.

If you graduate or move from ISKL and in your travels meet another member of our community, there is no doubt that Ms.Palko’s name will be in the conversation. Because Ms.Palko is ISKL.