Shannon McKenna always knew she was meant for education.
Three years after the lifelong Marlton resident started teaching at Gloucester County’s Clearview High School, though, she made the tough choice to put her professional life on hold for her children.
“I left a profession that I absolutely loved,” she said. “It was a difficult decision when I left teaching, but I knew that the opportunity to stay home and be a mother was definitely my priority at that time.”
McKenna felt the teaching life call to her as her three children grew up and went through both the Evesham Township and Lenape Regional school districts. So in the fall of 2012, she resumed her role as an educator at Cherokee High School, where she had graduated from in 1988.
Now in her ninth year as a special-education teacher, McKenna has been named Teacher of the Year, an honor her peers nominated her for.
She never saw it coming.
“I was shocked — I was in what I thought was a meeting to talk about the school store, and the next thing I know, there’s a knock on the door and there’s (Principal) Donna Charlesworth with balloons and flowers,” McKenna recalled with a laugh. “My heart was pounding! I was completely caught off guard.”
Being a special education teacher is how McKenna has combined her love of being an educator with her desire to make a positive difference.
“I love teaching students who may need more time or more understanding,” she noted. “I’m always drawn to helping others and wanting to give someone that extra attention. There are so many students out there who just need that time, that extra push, that extra love, and that’s what draws me to the special education climate.”
McKenna lives for the moments when her students take pride in their own accomplishments.
“Working with students one on one and seeing them achieve success is amazing, just amazing,” she enthused. “They don’t always want to do something new, so we have to give them the encouragement to try. When they understand a concept, their eyes just light up, and it makes all that extra time worth it.”
Seeing the high school she once knew as a student now through the eyes of a teacher is a unique perspective McKenna is thrilled to have.
“I’ve done so much in this one building: This one building has meant so much to me,” she reflected. “As a student, I have wonderful memories of being in the classroom, being on the playing field, being involved in student council. Now, I’m making even more memories as a teacher, as an advisor and as a coach.”
“I’m blessed to see both sides of Cherokee High School, as a student and as a
teacher,” McKenna added. “I’m very connected to the building.”
That home-field advantage has helped McKenna connect with her students on a deeper level, too.
“The strong sense of community that Marlton has, it makes it awesome to teach in the community I live in, and was born and raised in,” McKenna said. “I understand who my students are, what they’re involved in. I see my students all around town, and it’s wonderful to just bump into them and have a friendly connection with them outside the classroom. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
In addition to being an educator, McKenna currently co-manages the school store where many of her students work and manages the junior varsity softball team, the very sport she played in her days as a Lady Chief.
And while McKenna’s honor came as a shock to her, her co-workers are as unsurprised as they are delighted.
In fact, paraprofessional Ryan Carey nominated McKenna for Employee of the Month before he knew she was named Teacher of the Year.
“Shannon is able to adapt to the learning needs of students coming to us with a vast assortment of specialized modifications, all with deftness and enthusiasm,” Carey offered. “She’s exceptional. And the students love her!”
Lenape Regional High School District Superintendent Dr. Carol Birnbohm agrees that McKenna is an asset to the district family.
“Our Cherokee Teacher of the Year, Shannon McKenna, not only enriches her students’ experiences, but as a special education teacher, she continues to educate her colleagues on the need for equitable access to programs and how vital it is to the high school experience for all students,” she said. “She was instrumental in introducing DECA to our special education population and is an inspiration to students and staff alike using her passion, positive mindset and her unique sense of humor.”
McKenna treasures the knowledge that her Cherokee family supports her, and it’s that Cherokee Tribe she credits with helping her be the teacher her students deserve.
“I have a whole tribe behind me who all make me a better person and a better teacher,” she said. “I work with an amazing, tight-knit group, and I was completely humbled and extremely grateful that they spoke so kindly of me.”
But for McKenna, the biggest reward is knowing that her students are going into the world after high school ready to reach for their dreams.
“I’ll go out to dinner with my students who graduated, and just hearing them talk about where they’re working now and the successes that they’re having in life, it’s wonderful to hear that my hard work has helped them succeed, whether they’re going to college or have a job,” she said.
In turn, McKenna wants her students to graduate empowered by understanding their own potential.
“I want them to know that they have so many strengths,” she said. “I encourage my students to get out there and try new things. I want them to know that they can do it and I want them to say ‘yes to the opportunities that lie ahead of them. I want them to open those doors themselves.”