Stephen McKinney comes from a long line of educators and advocates in North Carolina. His mother and grandmother were elementary and middle school teachers, and his sister began her first year in the classroom last fall. His father was a prominent figure in the fight for LGBTQ equality in the state and still advocates for underrepresented communities today.
After graduating with a Spanish degree from Appalachian State University, he found himself working for a medical recruitment company. That did not fulfill him. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, especially those in the most need. So he enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program at the NC State College of Education with plans to teach elementary school.
When he returned to school, he found a passion for research that propels education forward. Opportunities to work as a graduate assistant with the college’s literacy initiative Wolfpack WORKS and its nationally-recognized principal preparation program The Northeast Leadership Academy inspired him to reflect on what he could contribute to the field.
He landed on a project that encourages more men to teach. He recently received funding from the university’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity to develop the idea and framework for a program that will create avenues for men, especially those of color, to enter the field of elementary education.
Below he shares what led him to elementary education, the life-changing experiences he has had while earning his MAT and how the NC State College of Education is preparing him to “change kids’ lives forever.” The following as-told-to is edited from an interview.
My mom was a middle school teacher and she worked with students who struggled primarily with writing. Growing up watching her build relationships with her students, especially students coming from high-poverty areas, really impacted me. My mom would pick me up from school with one of her students and take us to Wendy’s so that her student could eat. I had a front-row seat watching my mom change lives.
I always had in the back of my head that I would potentially end up in education. When it came down to deciding where I was going to fit in within that, I noticed there were so few men in elementary education. I knew my impact could be even greater by being one of those few men.
NC State was my first and only choice for my MAT. My initial conversation with my advisor and professor, Dr. Micha Jeffries, assistant teaching professor and director of the MAT program, had a lot to do with that. Herer charisma and passion for grooming high-quality teachers were evident within the first few minutes of talking with her. There was no doubt that this was where I wanted to do my teacher prep.
The first thing that happened when I enrolled, and arguably the best, was meeting Dr. Ann Harrington, associate teaching professor of reading education. She single-handedly impacted my trajectory throughout my graduate program. I was blown away by both the content and the approach she took to teaching Reading Methods during my first semester. She stood in front of that class of pre-service teachers and modeled how to teach — essentially performing like she was in the classroom in front of a group of first-graders. For me, as someone who had never been in a classroom to teach before, that was so helpful because I not only learned the content, but I also learned how to effectively communicate with an elementary classroom.
As part of that class, I was involved with her Reading Buddies project where we tutored kids who needed extra reading support. She also invited me to apply for a third-grade co-teaching position at the East Durham Children’s Initiative Summer Camp. It was my first full experience in a classroom.
The camp worked with several elementary schools in an impoverished area of Durham and I saw for the first time how race, gender and poverty can come into play in the classroom.
It was a powerful experience.
I realized instantly that the way I spoke and my past experiences were completely different than the students in my class. Being the only white person in the room, I had to tackle my own whiteness in order to reach my students.
And as a man, I saw how the boys in the classroom — and camp in general — opened up to me in ways they didn’t with my female counterpart. The poverty that I observed led me to question how I was to expect my students to be fully engaged academically if their basic human needs weren’t being met.
Teaching at that camp showed me that I had the ability to teach, care for and ultimately, come to love and make a difference in those children’s lives. Furthermore, it reinforced those initial thoughts I had when I chose to go into elementary education: where were all of the men?
I picked up where I left off searching for answers in research articles that identified the need for male educators and laid out examples of what can happen when there are men in the classroom. I began reading all that I could about teacher diversity and learned of the numerous academic and socio-behavioral benefits that arise when students learn from a diverse teacher workforce. It led me to question how we could bring more men, especially men of color, to the field of elementary education.
From there, I started to look around at different programs in the country that were already advocating for this kind of representation in the field, and I noticed there was a need for that right here in North Carolina.
With the support of Dr. Anona Smith Williams, associate dean for student success and strategic community engagement, and Dr. James Minogue, associate professor of elementary science methods, I applied for and received funding from the university’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity to develop the idea and framework for a program to recruit more men to the field of elementary education.
This semester, in addition to my responsibilities as a student teacher at Hunter GT/AIG Elementary School, I’m working with Dr. Smith-Williams and Dr. Minogue to apply for larger grants to develop the program I have in mind. I’m also continuing to grow our internal and external partnerships. In my ideal world, I would love to be able to recruit men to the program and offer them support through things like scholarships and on-campus mentors. But there’s a lot of work to be done before we get there.
Before heading into the classroom for his student teaching experience, McKinney had a front-row seat to two major initiatives at the college: the nationally-recognized Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA) and the $5.9 million grant-funded Wolfpack WORKS. He served as a graduate assistant for both initiatives.
What he said about NELA: “As someone who is learning to become a teacher, I got to work behind the scenes on this nationally-ranked program for preparing principals. It was a unique way for me to see education. I was able to observe and work with expert teachers transitioning into administration and learn about leadership from Dr. Bonnie Fusarelli and Dr. Lance Fusarelli, as well as the rest of the remarkable NELA team.”
What he said about Wolfpack WORKS: “I learned so much about what great literacy instruction looks like by traveling with our passionate literacy coaches as they visited Beginning Teachers across the state.”