Distance learning was never Kim Leslie’s long-term plan. But when a job opened up at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for a position in the distance learning department, she applied anyway.
“I looked at it as a foot in the door. That was my plan,” she said. “I had secured a job in the district, and then given some time, I would figure at what school I wanted to be at and then angle for that.”
That was almost a decade ago. Leslie’s still the district’s distance science teacher and she’s since fallen in love with distance learning.
“It turned out not to be a foot in the door. It turned out to be a life passion job,” she said.
Alaska’s Department of Education recognized that passion this spring. Leslie was one of five finalists for the 2021 Alaska Teacher of the Year award, among teachers from Anchorage, Utqiagvik, Fairbanks and Kotzebue. The Department of Education named Anchorage teacher Kelly Shrein Teacher of the Year last week.
Leslie, who lives in Seward, has a lot of fans on the Kenai Peninsula. Shona DeVolld is one of them. Both of her daughters have taken classes with Leslie.
“You really get a feeling that Kim makes every student feel like they are her favorite kid,” DeVolld said. “For a teacher to be able to do that over distance is absolutely remarkable.”
Distance learning became the norm this year, as teachers moved their in-person lessons online amid the pandemic.
But those lessons are different from the ones Leslie and her colleagues teach. Their lessons are built to be online.
They’re also asynchronous, so students can go through classes at their own pace.
"A piece to my puzzle that I really, really like, and I think allows this job to be so sustainable for me emotionally, is that I have zero group management,” she said. "And so for me, it’s all about truly nerding out on science and truly working with each of my students as the person that they are, where they’re at, what their interests are, what their skills are, what they want to learn more about.”
Leslie said there are several reasons a student may take one of her classes. They could be enrolled in the Connections Homeschool program or maybe they’re athletes who have to travel for their sport.
In all cases, she connects with students one-on-one to help them decide what they want to learn. She’s had students build an electric guitar, design a model for a hydroponic farm and do a deep dive into the field of physical therapy.
Shona DeVolld’s oldest daughter, Anna, created a science project in Leslie’s class that went on to win Caring for the Kenai last year.
“She really wraps science around these kids in a way that’s meaningful,” Shona DeVolld said.
A big focus of Leslie’s classes has been climate change. She said it feels particularly important in a place like Alaska, where students may have complicated relationships to the impacts of climate.
“They have families that are intimately involved with the fossil fuel industry. They have family members that live in places that are feeling the effect of stronger storms, or of permafrost melting,” Leslie said. “I would be remiss to not tackle it absolutely as hard as I can.”
Along with the science of climate change, Leslie teaches students about science denial and disinformation. She also tries to help students find actions they can take so they don’t feel hopeless.
“In some ways, I feel nervous,” she said. “I feel like it’s quite the responsibility to be teaching this subject that’s so relevant, but so powerful and has a lot of ugliness to it as well.”
Fellow distance education teacher Amanda Adams nominated Leslie for Teacher of the Year in February.
“I have been in education for over 20 years,” she said. “And Kim far and away has had the most profound impact on my professional world.”
She said Leslie is extremely supportive of her colleagues. Come to her with an idea, Adams said, and she’ll help figure out how that idea can best serve kids.
“And she’s always, always student centered,” Adams said.
She said Leslie puts her personal flair and voice in every video she creates for students.
That engagement is something District Superintendent John O’Brien remembers from Leslie’s interview, too. He said when the district went remote last year, Leslie helped other teachers hone their own distance learning styles.
“Kim immediately volunteered, along with Amanda Adams and some of the other folks in the distance learning program, to go above and beyond and reach out to their colleagues and actually help them as they embarked on their need to become distance teachers,” he said.
In his eyes, he said, Kim Leslie is the teacher of the year.