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Kelly Award winner brings head and heart to classroom

November 14, 2017
Virginia McKendry
Other Kelly Award winners include SHS Assoc. Prof. Marnie Jull, who received the Kelly New Teacher Award for her ability to model skills as a conflict engagement specialist. PCS facilitator, Fiona Prince, was chosen as the recipient of the Kelly Outstanding Workshop Facilitation Award for her commitment to helping students reach their goals.

Hugh Graham hadn’t felt like a novice at anything for a long time. That all changed when he stepped foot into Dr. Virginia McKendry’s communications theory class.

The Master of Arts in Professional Communication (MAPC) student already had a degree in English as well as diplomas in journalism and teaching English as a second language. Still, when Graham began the MAPC program, he felt like an imposter. On the inside, he felt anything but competent.

“I’ve always been quite confident in my skillset and my own intelligence,” Graham says. “But it had been a long time since I had been challenged to this level.”

Early in the program, McKendry, who is an associate professor in the School of Communication and Culture, spoke of imposter syndrome, Graham says. As it turns out, everyone had a case of it.

McKendry pointed out that these feelings are natural and expected, Graham says.

“Once you identify the beast, it becomes smaller in your own eyes.”

That’s just one of the reasons Graham and two of his fellow students nominated McKendry for the Kelly Outstanding Teaching Award. The annual award recognizes exceptional teachers for their commitment to creating a positive learning environment for students.

Another of McKendry’s students, Johanna Henderson, called her teacher an inspiration. McKendry could effortlessly bring communications theory down to earth, she says.

“She really meets you where you are in terms of an academic or theory background,” Henderson says, adding that students never felt ashamed for coming to class without a complete grasp on communications theory.

Using students’ own real life examples, McKendry helped them connect theory to practice. She did it in a way that made you really care about learning, Henderson says.

“It makes everybody feel like they belong there and they can achieve.”

McKendry says that approach is by design.

Over her 15-year teaching career, McKendry has learned to address students at the human level, not just as people getting a degree. Like many teachers, she says much of her own schooling focused on developing hard teaching skills and “intellectual scaffolding.” Discussions about compassion and care in teaching were largely absent, she says.

McKendry says there is a moral dimension to learning that is equally important to the intellectual side. Knowing that allows her to appeal to people at an emotional level.

“When I’m teaching, I’ve always got all my senses open–looking for the light in the eyes of a person or the furrowed brow that tells me I haven’t found quite the right metaphor.”

When she hears the collective sigh in the room–that palpable ‘a-ha’ moment—she knows her students get it.

Graham and Henderson both say McKendry touched them profoundly, both by the quality of the education she provided and also in terms of her ability to connect with them on a personal level.

“I really felt she cared about me and not just getting bodies through the program,” Henderson says.

The Kelly Outstanding Teaching Awards were established in 2003 with donations made in honour of Royal Roads University’s first president and vice-chancellor Gerry Kelly. Each recipient receives a $1,000 award.

Kelly emphasized building the university around the centrality of the learner and the importance of excellence in teaching.

Amy Hinrichs, Advancement Officer at Royal Roads, says Kelly had a great passion for authentic and effective teaching.

“This award was set up to recognize individual efforts and how teachers use their unique skills to make an impact on individual students.”