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WA Education Assistant of the Year 2017

Karen Warren, Challis Community Primary School

When something is meant to be, it will be – and when Karen Warren finally stepped into the classroom, it was a long time coming.

Growing up playing ‘school’ with her sisters sparked a dream that became reality as young Karen began to study teaching.

Everything was falling into place – until life got in the way.

Having to say goodbye to her studies, she began working in banking where she stayed for the next 21 years.

It would take something significant to get Karen back on track.

That significant moment came when Karen was confronted by the third armed hold-up at the bank in six months. She pulled the pin on banking and revisited her childhood dream of life in a classroom.

She went on to study to become an education assistant with a focus on children with special needs. The decision, she says, was the best she ever made – and that sentiment is shared by her colleagues and students at Challis Community Primary School.

“We work with children who face all sorts of challenges in their lives,” she says. “It’s incredible to see their faces light up when they achieve something they don’t think they can.”

She’s a fierce advocate of students with additional learning needs and works tirelessly to help every student succeed.

Recently, after identifying an opportunity to transform the way students with special needs are taught in the classroom, Karen developed an innovative program called STRIVE.

STRIVE ensures these students get intensive and tailored support, while giving them time in mainstream classes to maintain social and academic connections with their classmates and teachers.

“We now have 12 students in STRIVE who work closely with staff to achieve their unique goals in literacy, numeracy, and life and social skills,” she says.

The results speak for themselves, with Karen reflecting on a story which shows it’s all worthwhile.

“A Year 1 child with an intellectual disability and significant speech impairment came to us, not able to recognise her feelings and barely speaking one word answers. Since joining STRIVE this year and not only is she able to clearly communicate her feelings but she’s exceeded our expectations in reading and writing too,” she smiles.

It’s this commitment to have a positive impact, as well as her incredible experience and expertise, that makes her a well-respected leader at the school.

Leading a team of 31 education assistants, she has a way of instilling confidence in her staff and helping them develop strategies for students that really make a difference.

“We have an amazing group of staff who support each other, laugh with one another and work together to get the best possible outcomes for students,” Karen says. “I’m proud that we go above and beyond for students each and every day.”

While never far from the classroom, as learning support coordinator Karen works closely with students and teachers to deliver individual learning program, builds strong relationships with parents, mentors her peers, provides professional learning and coordinates parent groups.

And there’s no denying that her valuable contribution to the school has a flow-on effect.

According to her colleagues, Karen has created an effective and positive learning community which has not only improved student and staff achievement, it’s also empowered the school’s broader network.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

“In 2016, I was very ill and it took many weeks to diagnose the problem,” she explains. “This experience helped me understand how short life is. It made me learn to enjoy the smallest things in life and live life to the full – because you never know when it could be taken away from you.”

Just as she helps her students to overcome adversity, throughout her illness Karen never showed signs of slowing down, and her innovative and creative leadership is continuing to take the school to new heights.