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AU Alumna Wins Prestigious Teaching Award

By Jamie McCrary

Kena Allison

Physics teacher and AU alumna Kena Allison teaches more than just science. Allison’s students learn not only how to work through a physics problem—they learn how to apply critical thinking skills to everyday situations. “My philosophy is to not just teach information,” says Allison. “I try to teach students how to think so they are aware of how their thought processes can be used in all facets of their lives. I want them to learn things that are applicable to any content and to everyday decisions they make.” 

Several weeks ago, Allison’s dedication and hard work was rewarded with the prestigious Milken Educator Award. Regarded as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the program honors top educators around the country with $25,000 awards to use at their discretion. Aside from the generous monetary award, perhaps the most exciting part of receiving the accolade is its delivery. New recipients learn of their award at school-wide assemblies with students, teachers, and friends standing by to help celebrate the achievement.  

A teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Anacostia, Allison was appreciative of the award but quick to acknowledge the equivalent dedication of her colleagues. “This award could have gone to anyone at our school,” she says. “Everyone is working so diligently and so purposefully. It’s not a place that supports complacency, and I think my success has really hinged on watching other people do great and exceptional work.”  

Though Allison has always been passionate about education, she studied science before becoming a teacher, even spending a year in medical school. “I’ve always loved working with my peers and teaching them what I felt passionate about,” says Allison. “Even though I studied science, I was still involved in educational programs like mentoring, so that educational component was always there. After being in medical school for a year, I decided I needed to pursue what I felt I was truly good at, which is sharing information with people to help them make the best decisions they can.” 

After teaching for several years, Allison enrolled in AU’s School of Education, Teaching, and Health (SETH) as part of the Capital Excellence Program, an alternative certification program for people who have chosen to switch careers. She went on to take additional teaching classes, eventually earning her master’s in teaching from AU in 2010. “I wanted to get my master’s so I could really hone in on how to better my teaching,” she says. “AU’s master of arts in teaching helped me define some of what I was already doing, but also gave me different concepts to consider when I was planning and teaching my classes.” 

Allison feels she came to AU at the perfect time in her career, as she was able to combine teaching experience with new ideas and theories. “Because I had been in the classroom for a couple of years, I felt the program offered me a lot of theory that aligned with what I was already doing,” she says. “The program helped me think about how to reach all students, even the challenging kids. I think it provided me with a deeper appreciation for being a teacher.”  

Allison acknowledges that becoming a Milken Educator is a huge honor, but also notes that the award does not mark the end of her work. “The day I received the award, I spent a lot of time trying to process, ‘Why me?’” she says. “A former Milken Educator reminded me that this happened for a reason, and to understand that it’s not a lifetime achievement award. The expectation is that I will continue to grow as a professional and continue to help other people be better.”  

Moving forward, Allison hopes she can continue helping both her students and Thurgood Marshall Academy grow. “I hope Thurgood Marshall can become a real resource in the community of Anacostia,” she says. “I’d like the school to be a place where the community feels they can come for support for their young people—even if their kids aren’t in high school yet.”  

Perhaps her biggest dream, though, is for her students’ futures. Allison hopes that her students will understand that education gives them options for the future. “I want my students to have choices,” she says. “I’ve been able to do what I’ve done in my life because of my education and the opportunities it created for me. That’s what I want to communicate to my students.”