Kathy Kleen: Permission for Passion

Warning: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/b4ey4rbk3gtb/domains/lakesidelabair.org/html/wp-content/themes/LakesideLabAIR17/single.php on line 19

Strong leaders show rather than tell, just as strong educators learn as they lead. During the Lakeside summer of 1984, Kathy Kleen, a then-aspiring teacher pursuing a biology degree at Northwestern College, immersed herself within a group of impassioned professors. Impassioned as they were, dripping with excitement and interest like over-laden sponges, she soaked up their surplus energy and left her field station experience saturated with her own brand of love for biology, birds and plants. Before she stood before her own students at Spirit Lake High School, she sat at the base of the mist net as a young woman in the company of peers and educators alike.


Kathy walked alongside professors as her professors walked out stone cottage screen doors. Each instructor respectively circled back to their place of passion:


The lake’s shallows, where darters – their many under-appreciated species – zip around rocks.

The oak grove, where lichen appears life-size through the lens of a tiny microscope.

The prairie, where grass seed tops sift between fingers of an outstretched hand.


Kathy followed closely.

She absorbed their buzz of interest.

Her peers buzzed with interest.

Her own buzz, from deep within her, grew louder.


In Kathy’s case, unspoken permission from Lakeside faculty and time worked together to swallow her that summer. She sunk into the landscape and found herself taken by the same forces that moved her teachers. “Once people have that experience there – whatever it is – it kind of just, grabs ahold of your heart. I don’t know, it just kind of pulls you.” In other words, Lakeside gets under your skin. It teaches you to see a world you cannot unsee thereafter. Kathy started syncing up with nature’s way:


Birds flew into her mist nets.

The wind blew, and the prairie danced.

Each plant had a name and could be honored by putting soft pencil to paper.

It just kind of becomes part of you.”



When Kathy stepped out of her experience that summer, she could no longer separate Lakeside – its people, land, creatures – from herself. Still today, Lakeside radiates from her.

“It’s spilled over into my life in every aspect.”



Her Lakeside mentors first demonstrated how to carry love at their core. Kathy – better known as Mrs. Kleen to thousands of Spirit Lake High School graduates, where she teaches AP biology and anatomy – continues this practice in her own classroom. She received the Excellence in Education Award in 2018 and is highly regarded by teachers and students alike.


Kathy’s students can tell she’s made of the good stuff: given the chance, they’d see that the educator in her does not die off when she walks out classroom doors. Her love for biology is not a front. Her Lakeside professors had shared with her a priceless lesson: “[Lakeside] allowed me to feel that it’s okay to be passionate about what you love. And it’s okay to let it out.” At a high school level, she pays this forward by giving her own students permission for passion.


Whether students go on to be educators, scientists, artists, or lifestyle naturalists, a summer at Lakeside has the potential to infiltrate every cell in a student’s body and overflow beyond them again. The conditions are right to fall in love, just as Kathy did. As a Lakes Area local still today, she returns to Lakeside often to realign with the student within herself, who first fell in love with birds at the base of the mist net.


By Josie Hoien



“Artists and scientists are both asking questions about the world, they’re just doing it in different ways”
Alex Braidwood
Director, Iowa Lakeside Lab Artists-in-Residence Program
Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list to keep up with what's happening in the Artist-in-Residence studios