Panthers Of ISKL #55 - Karen Palko - The Longest-Serving Panther
In this week's special edition honoring our 55th anniversary, we met up with Karen Palko, Middle School's PE and Dance faculty, who has been working at ISKL for the past 38 years!
Karen who came to Malaysia initially with the US Peace Corps, spent time in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, before coming down to work at ISKL.
Here is her story.
"I'm the longest faculty member at ISKL, and I'm looking to continue for as long as I can. I still have loads of ideas and lots of energy, so even with the pandemic, I'm going to keep on going until they tell me, "stop, you're done!" Technically, I've spent my entire adult life here, and my job opportunities get better and better each year!
'I love Malaysia - the people, the country, and the tropics. When I considered leaving, I had difficulty figuring out when to go because there always seemed to be an upcoming fruit season (mango season, durian season). There was always something approaching on the next horizon, and so I ended up not leaving at all.
'Malaysia itself was terrific back then in the early ’80s. It was considered a developing country and in KL there was only one major traffic light, many roads were unpaved, few cars, and everybody took buses. The area around the old ISKL campus was all rainforest - it was fantastic. I remember being out and about in the town, exploring and meeting new people, I was young and enjoying my young adult life at that time.
'I always talk about those days with fondness because breakfast cost me around 5 cents, lunch was 15 cents, and dinner was like 35 cents to 50 cents. It's hard to believe how much things have changed, but those were my fondest memories of my earliest days living in Malaysia.
'I've taught various subjects during my time here, even robotics, but currently and at least for the last 10-15 years, I've been teaching dance, PE, and drama classes in Middle School (MS) - it is the one place where I belong.
'Every year, there's a dance show, a musical, and/or a play for both High School (HS) and MS, and I like to keep track of all my different years and eras at ISKL through the various productions we've done. I do this by having t-shirts for virtually everything (I know this is getting old-fashioned), and I have collected almost 200 of them. Back in the day, there was a t-shirt for literally everything. For every single function or production we've ever had at ISKL, I've been the dance teacher for the most part. T-shirt memorabilia is not the norm anymore, but luckily we have social media to keep track of all the different productions.
'When I look at these t-shirts, I remember doing the show "Guise" - it was about hiding in our various disguises. 'Iconic' was one of our more recent shows - people always ask me what my favorite show is, and "Africa" was just that. We have all the cultural convention t-shirts every year that we go to because we're part of the IASAS group, and it shows what years we went to Manila and when we went to Taipei and the other IASAS schools around Southeast Asia.
'I'm proud of our dance program because it's student-led. I remember seeing alumni Bilquis Hijjas (‘97) take over a dance show and do a routine that was so much better than what I instructed in class. It truly taught me to step back and make space for the students take over as the benefit pays off down the line. Students may not see the value of it now, but when they get older, they recognize what a significant contribution they did.
'I'm also the coordinator for Malaysia Week (MW), an outdoor education program that is one of my proudest achievements. The goals have not changed since the day they were written 40 years ago, and I'm pleased to have been able to uphold the same standards due to the different needs of each year’s program. We've maintained MW at a level that's memorable, exciting, and fulfilling for students. It pushes kids out of their comfort zone, and I'm proud because that has not been an easy thing to keep as an even keel.
'What inspires me are the students. As the saying goes, I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none. People think of me as the creative type, but I would say that I have an excellent eye for things. No matter the student or their talents or abilities, I have a way of evolving those talents and encouraging students to elevate themselves. I like to ask my students, "how can I help you? How can I help you reach your goals?"
'A lot of the memories I have are to do with faculty and staff. When you work here, it becomes one of your most incredible memories of all time. It doesn't matter how many different schools you go to, many teachers have left, and they always say they wish they could come back.
'Being the longest-serving teacher at ISKL, I can plot all the people who've come and gone. When people leave, I feel sad, but then new people come and inject new life - I feel like it's a constant social life for me!"
'I would not call anything I do after school hours 'a hobby.' They are more of a passion. People who know me know that I love dogs. At one point in time, I had 11! My other real passion is reading, arts and crafts, painting, and anything Christmassy. Not just the Christmas season itself, but the arts and crafts side of Christmas. When it's Christmas, my house is a wonderland, and I usually have as many trees as I have dogs!
What does 'Be All You Are' mean to you?
“We don't know what our limits are. I like a challenge, and I like when somebody says, let's do this, and you may not know what to do at all. But you learn how to do it, and it helps us grow.
You're not defined as a person; it's just what is out of reach where you can keep on growing.”
Do you know a student, faculty, staff, or alumni with a story to tell? Nominate them to be featured in our Panthers of ISKL stories by sending in your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org!