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Empowering Learners

Teacher Karen May sitting at a table with a male studentFor more than 20 years, Karen May has worked with Taft students and faculty to effectively maximize classroom experiences, while empowering students to harness their full potential as learners. 

“I tell every student I see, ‘I want you to feel competent, I want you to understand who you are as a learner, and I want you to be able to communicate that—to advocate for yourself in any situation,’” says Karen.

After a long career that included time as an inner-city special education teacher, an independent learning specialist, and an academic guide for gifted students with learning differences at a local public high school, Karen came to Taft to tutor one student. The academic dean at the time had begun receiving “piles” of third-party student evaluations, and wasn’t quite sure how to approach them. 

“I had a good understanding of student evaluations, and how to translate them in ways that would allow teachers to better understand their students,” explains Karen. “There was really no position, at that time—I created it. [Then Headmaster] Lance [Odden] was very supportive. We literally designed Taft’s first learning center in the Manning Conference Room where the English office is now.”

Karen says she took those “40 and 50 and 60-page” evaluations and began translating them into one-page documents that teachers could more easily read and digest.

“It helped them understand their students as learners—their strengths, as well as their challenges—and how that might impact their classroom experience,” says Karen. “I reviewed the reports for suggested accommodations, and developed plans for both classroom study and standardized testing.”

Karen’s work is the foundation on which Taft’s Moorhead Academic Center (MAC) was built. With an overarching mission to improve student learning, the MAC offers a broad range of resources and services to Taft faculty, students, and parents. Until last year, Karen served as the Center’s director. The MAC, a large room with tables and carrels for group and independent work , Teacher with student in background

“I think if I ask myself what role I play, it is one of empowerment,” says Karen. “I want students to see how capable they are and what they need to do to be where they want to be. My goal is that they graduate from here independent and completely confident.”

Karen estimates that she has met with approximately 20% of the student population at Taft. About half of those students “self-refer,” she says, coming by on their own with specific questions, or looking for simple guidance, study tips, or learning strategies. Whether they self-refer or come with a formal plan, Karen understands that each learner arrives with a unique perspective, and a unique set of skills.

“I took a fascinating summer course in neuroscience at MIT,” Karen says. “Researchers there are using functional MRIs to look at brain activity—to see what part of the brain does what. They went into it thinking maybe there were five different types of learners. But they came out with the finding that, just like your fingerprints, there are no two people who learn the same way. Understanding that learning is as different as a thumbprint is fascinating.”

And impactful. Her years of experience, her passion for teaching and learning, and her understanding of how learning works and what makes students tick has earned Karen a special place in the hearts of many Taft alumni, including that of a recent graduate now studying at MIT, whose Office of Admissions invites students to recognize teachers who have been “especially influential in their development.” Karen was recently humbled and honored to receive notification of her recognition by a member of Taft’s class of 2018.

“I’m so blessed to do what I do, and to do it here at Taft,” says Karen. “I believe that we should each have a purpose in life, and the more than I can foster learning and a love of learning, the more I am creating and fulfilling my own.”