By KATIE EUBANKS
Fulfilling his calling
In 1738, future Methodism leader John Wesley reluctantly attended a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, heard a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans, and felt assurance of his salvation.
Wesley wrote in his journal that, “while (the reader) was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
United Methodists today commemorate this date (May 24 or the closest Sunday) each year as Aldersgate Day.
Nearly 250 years after Wesley, Alabama native Palmer Kennedy had what he calls his own “Aldersgate experience”:
“It actually happened at a football game,” he says. “For some reason, I just asked the coach if I could lead us in prayer. And at that point I went, ‘What have I done?’
“Between church, and between teachers, and between situations … I became known as ‘that (Christian) guy.’ And when you become that guy, you do have to own up to your faith.”
Palmer’s school, St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, played a role in his “Aldersgate” moment and many others, he says. “I had a couple of teachers (and coaches) who showed that they cared enough to expect the best from me,” he says.
“Really, they just reinforced what my parents taught me. I’d like to think that that next step of (my parents’ faith) becoming my faith would’ve happened without the family faith, but I can’t say that.”
Later, Palmer’s walk with Christ has looked like a recommitment at major milestones: Marriage, children, and every education job he gets, like the one he just accepted as head of school at Jackson Academy (JA).
But for someone who would work as a teacher and/or administrator for more than three decades and counting, Palmer initially had “zero intention of becoming an educator,” he recalls.
‘I’m not going to be a teacher’
At the University of South Alabama, Palmer double majored in economics and history, and fell in love with the latter. During a semester abroad at the London School of Economics, one of his professors said, “I appreciate that you’re thinking about law school, or getting a Ph.D. in history … but I envision you being a teacher.”
“In the beginning, I rejected that,” Palmer says.
After getting his master’s in history, he decided to teach at St. Paul’s for one year, and then start his law degree or doctorate.
“And then I fell in love with (teaching).”
He decided to teach for two years instead of one. “But I’m still not going to be a teacher,” he thought — and continued thinking that in year five.
Finally, “Sometime between then and now, I became a teacher.”
When he first started at St. Paul’s, he taught six classes, coached three sports, and maintained the facilities in the summers.
“That’s what some people do, to do what you think you’re supposed to be doing, and to provide,” he says. “Things have changed in 36 years, but not a lot has changed. There are people at JA and other schools that do that, and they aren’t always appreciated.
“COVID made people realize how challenging teaching can be.”
From St. Paul’s — at one point the largest Episcopal school in the country — to St. Luke’s Episcopal School (also in Mobile), to Advent Episcopal School in Birmingham, Palmer carried his own educational philosophy, which he sums up in one word: Love.
“A lot of people think as a kid grows up, less love is needed. That is very incorrect. The older somebody gets, the more they remember. They need to know you care about them in ways younger ones just assume you do.”
Older kids also need space. Fortunately for Palmer’s son and daughter, by the time they reached high school at St. Paul’s, their dad was no longer working there.
“I wasn’t all up in their friends’ business,” he says — but still made sure to keep tabs on his kids. “I’m a dad. Any shortcut to their business, yeah, I’m going to take it.”
While teaching and moving into administrative positions in Alabama, Palmer “watched JA from afar,” he says, visiting six or seven times over the years “to peek behind the curtain (and) steal ideas.” He’d already developed relationships at JA when he learned a year ago that they were looking for a head of school.
“I think it was in November we decided to ‘get married,’ if you will, because that’s basically what you do,” he says. He officially became head of school on June 1, 2021.
Making the ‘marriage’ work
Palmer says his job at JA is “to build teams, coach teams, and help everybody else help other people. That’s going to be the biggest challenge at a school this size, is to help everybody see their roles,” he says. JA has nearly 1,200 students in pre-K3 through 12th grades.
“The trick of a large church (or school) is to make yourself feel smaller than you are. You want to help people sincerely feel they’re an integral part of what we do.”
His hiring philosophy? “Hire the heart,” he says.
“The goal is to support an incredible team of adults here who understand we can learn as much from our kids as they learn from us. And we can learn as much from each other as we try to teach our kids. Lifelong learning is as important for a pre-K 3-year-old as it is for the teacher who’s been there 40 years.”
He says one of the things every headmaster should do is honor the past, along with making sure the school is providing the best education possible and preparing for whatever lies ahead.
“I have the reputation of being a change agent. But I only want to change things when I know what doesn’t need to change,” he says.
For instance, the JA mission statement: “Within our nurturing and spiritual community, Jackson Academy inspires and equips each student to lead a life of purpose and significance.”
That mission goes right along with Palmer’s own, he says.
“I felt like (being an educator) was the best opportunity I had to do what I felt the Lord called me to do — help people be their best self, and hopefully find Him.”
He emphasizes teaching students to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them.
“My favorite scripture, which people around me probably get tired of me saying, is ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ (Luke 12:48). That was engrained in me early on.”
Similarly, “teachers will be judged (more strictly than others),” he notes. “To have this responsibility is daunting, but … there is so much this school is able to do.”
What COVID has taught educators
“I think in schools, in churches, in places where people gather, we were on a trajectory of, ‘How do we use technology to help people in better ways than bringing them together?’
“We still want to work on the advancement of technology — but until you lose something (like meeting in person for school or church), you don’t know how special it is.”
About the Kennedys
Palmer’s wife, Karen, “is an accountant by trade and degree,” Palmer says, who’s worked in student services at schools for 20 years, “mostly helping keep up with test data. She’ll be around JA more after we get settled, because she’s the better part of me.”
Palmer and Karen’s daughter, Laura, is a graphic designer who owns a ceramics business in Empire, Michigan (her husband, Sam, is a writer); their son, Palmer, is a school chaplain in Charleston, South Carolina (his wife, Hayley, is a speech-language pathologist); and they have one grandson, Patrick
Challenges in education today
“You see culture creeping into your school, but when you have a school like this (JA), you see hope,” Palmer says.
“There are things kids used to have to go find that they have to run from now. It gets harder to be a parent every year. … You cannot spend enough time trying to know what’s going on in your kid’s life. You cannot listen to your kid enough.”
Research from the National Association of Independent Schools shows that parents are “looking at schools to come alongside them in character development (of their kids),” Palmer says.
“At a school like JA, we don’t talk about it a lot because we do it — that partnership with parents.
“It helps when parents know they’re not alone. (They know,) ‘I’m not crazy.’”
Oftentimes, he says, “we find out just how well we did (when a student starts) freshman year of college, or 20 years later. That verse about training up a child (Proverbs 22:6), theologians can debate about whether that’s a promise or just a probability, but it’s more relevant than ever.”