Seeing Students’ Superpowers
Dr. Lakita McKinney on her journey in education
“I never had a doubt about what I wanted to do professionally; I knew that teaching was going to be my profession of choice.”
Few people are lucky enough to find their life’s passion before they graduate from high school. For Dr. Lakita McKinney, the new Managing Director of Networks for the West Coast at Leading Educators, she knew she was being called to teach before she was even out of middle school.
She reflects on her time in elementary and middle school, which helped shape her views on education, and then later as a teacher and principal. (It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
Early Education: Feeling Seen
“My K-8 experience was really transformative. During that time, most of my teachers were Black, which meant that I had a lot of opportunities to have mirrors and windows throughout that very pivotal time of development. School was my happy place. It was my home away from home, it was a place where I felt seen and validated. It was okay to be smart there. I had teachers who looked like me, who affirmed me, and who provided me with opportunities beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood in which I lived. They gave me mirrors because I could see myself in them and windows because they gave me opportunities to see beyond my current realities.
Most of my teachers had attended HBCUs, or historically Black colleges and universities. That exposed me to a college culture that I really did not know existed because up until that point, until about seventh or eighth grade, I did not have any family members who attended college. The exposure and experiences that my teachers provided for me fueled my desire to pay it forward. I wanted to provide the kind of experience that I had in K-8 for other students. I had no doubt when it was time for college and to decide on a major that I wanted to be in education.”
“You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
“There was one experience that really solidified my decision. When I was in sixth grade, I was selected to be in the district band. Up until that point, I had visited other schools within our district because I played sports but had not gone beyond the gymnasium. There were about 10 elementary schools within our district, and two of them were on the “other side of the tracks.” For our first band rehearsal, we went to a school that was on the other side of the tracks.
When I entered the building, I noticed things were just different, like aesthetically different. I noticed they had air conditioning in their school while we were trying to ward off bees in the summertime. Things looked nicer and brighter and just different. I didn’t think much about it, because my teachers cared and made sure we had everything we needed to succeed. But I did see a stark contrast, and I think that was my first time having to face inequities in education.
I did not know what to do with that as a sixth grader. I remember coming back to my teacher, who was my mentor, and she happened to be my third-grade teacher. She said, ‘Lakita, you have two choices. You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.’ Being given that charge as a sixth grader was really heavy. However, it solidified for me that I wanted to be in this field and ensure that no other student had to feel the way that I felt knowing that there were differences within the same district based purely on demographics, socioeconomic status, and where we lived within our community. So, after that experience, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher for sure, without a doubt.”
High School Experience: Feeling disconnected
“All our elementary schools fed into one high school, and my high school experience was a lot different. I didn’t feel the same level of support and school community connection. Although I was very involved in high school, it had a different feel. I didn’t feel the same level of care and concern from my teachers; there were noticeably fewer teachers who looked like me. That certainly impacted my learning experience.
I would say there were also signs of segregation, even within our schools, and it was really self-selected by students. For instance, our high school was on three different levels. Depending on your ethnicity, that determined where you put your locker. And so, although we were one school, you could tell there were silos within the school. My parents also went to the same high school, and they were there in the 1960s. Clearly, there was a lot of racial unrest at that particular time, and I continued to see remnants of that. I noticed, for example, in my honors classes, there were not a lot of students that looked like me. We received visits from college recruiters in the honors class but other students had to proactively visit the counseling office. Facing what I knew later to be inequities within education certainly contributed to why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place.”
preparing for hard work and “heart” work
“When I started teaching, I went in with the mindset that I knew it was going to be hard work, but I also knew that it was going to be heart work. I intentionally sought out opportunities to work in what would be considered “high-needs” neighborhoods. I had to address my students’ mindsets, not just my own.
I taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade for most of my career. By the time those students came to me, they had been told so many times about what they could not do, what they could not become, and what they could not be. I had to help them unlearn deficit mindsets and beliefs and help them realize that they each had superpowers and cultural assets to bring to the classroom. My job as a teacher was to unlock that potential and empower them to tap into it.
I knew that I needed to be able to exude a high level of care and concern for students, and that level of care and concern pushed me to try to exhaust everything within my toolkit to find entry points for each and every student in my classroom. I was committed to breaking down barriers and removing roadblocks from their pathway. I was intentional about addressing academic barriers and caring for their social-emotional needs. I needed to build trust and establish community within my classroom. I wanted my students to know that I believed in them and that they could do great things and achieve at high levels. I experienced that in elementary school; I wanted that same experience for my students. I brought my K-8 experience and the amazing preparation I received at FAMU’s College of Education into teaching with me. Both experiences shaped who I became as a teacher.”
From Teacher to Principal
“I never aspired to be a school leader, and when I think about it, I think most leaders don’t really aspire to leadership; you’re kind of thrust into that. That was certainly the case for me. I was content with the impact that I was having within my classroom every year and was very comfortable there. Then I realized that the 25 to 30 students who were lucky enough to get into my classroom only represented a small number of students within each school I taught in. I felt the need to do more and realized I could do more. Parents actually pushed me towards even exploring the possibility of school leadership, and I did because I realized that I could have a much bigger impact. Being a part of school leadership afforded me the opportunity to make a difference for students, teachers, families, and a community. When I started as a school leader, my first principal job was at a turnaround contract school. The school was closed down due to persistent low academic performance. It was reconstituted and I became the founding principal.
I was baptized by fire, literally, into school leadership. I had completed a very selective and rigorous principal preparation program and felt equipped in most aspects to lead. But I had no idea how challenging the work of school leadership would be. At the conclusion of the principal preparation program, I had decided that I wanted the opportunity to either start a school or take on a turnaround school. The idea of starting from ideation to implementation and execution appealed to me, and I knew this work would not be easy.
There were so many challenges that I had to face. Challenges that had to be faced within the community – building trust and relationships. The challenges associated with finding and hiring the right people who believed in the possibility of what I wanted to create for our school community. The challenges of competing priorities among stakeholders. But one of the greatest challenges was around shifting mindsets and beliefs.”
“I had an amazing team.”
“I had an amazing team of teachers and administrators who worked alongside me, and we just had this shared vision around what we wanted to see for our students and our school community. We focused a lot on school culture, we focused on community building, and coalition building. We had an unwavering commitment to high-quality instruction for our students and we stayed in a perpetual beta phase and a continuous cycle of improvement. We would make strategic decisions, test them out, and gather data along the way to determine what we need to start, stop, or continue. Everyone contributed to the work and every student was the responsibility of every adult in the building. Over four years, we went from the lowest level of recognition in terms of academic standing with the district to the highest, and that’s attributed to a team of people working together and coalescing around a shared vision of what was possible for students.
I was the principal at that school for four years and then moved into a district administrator role. Each time I moved, I tried to remove barriers in the way of the students within our district. I feel like leadership sought me out in some ways. But I felt compelled and called to do it because I knew that I could have a greater impact than what I was having in my classroom each year with a different class every year.”
Moving Beyond the Principal Role
“Beyond my role as principal, I remained focused on work that advanced equity in education. My first role in a district capacity had a significant emphasis on breaking down some of the barriers that existed between school/district leadership and parent/community relations. I had to bridge the gap between schools and communities across three school networks in pursuit of equitable outcomes. My work later transitioned into the leadership development space, supporting other school and district leaders as they worked to dismantle barriers and disrupt inequitable practices in education. My work centered around building the skills and development of the mindsets necessary to be effective in school leadership. I leveraged the lessons that I learned in school leadership to support the development of aspiring and current school leaders. I wanted the leaders that I supported and coached to feel equipped and empowered to reimagine what it meant to create a school environment that ensured better outcomes for students, teachers, families, and communities.
There was a keen emphasis on equity in my work. I wanted the leaders that I was supporting and developing to have the tools necessary to create learning environments that provided opportunities for all students to learn and thrive. I wanted them to be empowered to drive change and look at the challenges that we face in education as opportunities to innovate and create.”
Working toward systemic change at LE
“I hope that beyond equity, which is addressing the systems and structures, I’m able to contribute to seeing justice in education, and that’s where we’re able to realize sustainable change, which is why the mission of Leading Educators really resonates with me. I want to be able to partner with school systems to help them build those sustainable conditions that ensure that students who have been traditionally marginalized or furthest from opportunity, students who look like me, and students who grew up in neighborhoods like I grew up in are equipped to succeed, not just academically but in life generally. I hope that is the kind of impact I will make in this role as I partner with school districts on the West Coast.”
“I want people to know that each student has unique superpowers, gifts, talents, and interests. How the adults in the building or the district office attend to those is important. Teachers who really care are always thinking about how to reach students and how to unlock the potential that each student possesses.
Sometimes teachers get a really bad rap about not caring or not doing enough but there are a lot of teachers that are working really hard, doing a whole lot, and making miracles happen every day for students with very few resources. And it’s because they care. Teachers stay in the profession because they care. You don’t make a ton of money being a teacher, so it’s much more than that. It is because people feel called to this work, and I think you have to be called to this work in order to do it well.”