First grade teacher Haylee McKenna sparks curiosity in students by bringing the world into the classroom


Haylee McKenna


It’s often said that the world is like a classroom. In Haylee McKenna’s first-grade class, it’s all about bringing curriculum and real-world experiences together to spark curiosity in students’ minds. McKenna, named North Park Elementary’s 2023-24 Teacher of the Year, teaches her students to turn the world around them into a giant classroom.


Teaching wasn’t McKenna's initial plan. Growing up, her sights were set on starting a career in the medical field. However, after starting school at Utah State University, she felt drawn towards teaching and made the switch. She graduated with a degree in elementary education and is currently in her second year of teaching. “I teach first grade, and I love it,” McKenna commented. “The students are fun, learn so fast, and are very honest, so they say things that keep me humble.” 


For McKenna, the most rewarding part of teaching a classroom full of young students is seeing the vibrant energy and positivity they radiate, and watching them grow and understand new concepts. “My favorite part about teaching is being surrounded by the light they shine,” she explained. “I just like to be around kids, because they’re so fun and ready to learn. They want to be here and are so excited about life, so being here keeps me refreshed on living my own life.”


Haylee McKenna and students    Haylee McKenna


One of McKenna’s main goals is to help students develop a curiosity for learning. In McKenna’s class, students draw real-world connections between what they experience outside of school and concepts they learn in the classroom. “I want students to be able to develop curiosity, to go have experiences and come back and share with the other students what they've learned outside of the class,” McKenna added. With every trip or vacation, McKenna constantly thinks of how she can include what she sees in her lessons to help students build real-world connections.  “I bring back pictures of actual things I’ve learned and seen, so it’s not just in the books for them,” McKenna explained, “They see someone they know has been there.”


To help foster the development of this curiosity, McKenna helps her students understand that they’re valued, seen, and heard in her classroom. Whether through facilitating student presentations on their own experiences or encouraging them to think a little deeper into topics, McKenna is dedicated to creating an environment where curiosity for learning thrives.“I want them to feel safe and give them opportunities to share what they think in class,” McKenna expounded. “Giving them questions that make them think always helps. I don't want them just to regurgitate what the book says.  I want to know what they actually think.”


Haylee McKenna


McKenna attributes much of her success in her early teaching career to the support and guidance provided by her fellow teachers and mentors. “I’ve been able to get a lot of help and practice from my colleagues,” McKenna commented. “I’ve got a long way to go! The important thing is to keep trying. I’m realizing how much I don’t know, but I’ve learned a lot and got a lot of help. Part of the fun is the challenge to grow.”


North Park Elementary Principal Jullie Payne expressed gratitude for McKenna’s positive influence on the school. “Her colleagues describe her as a bright ray of sunshine that always treats students and teachers with kindness,” Payne remarked. “They appreciate that she is always positive and find that her positivity rubs off on those around her. Her lessons are engaging, and students learn a lot from her instruction.”