Community Impact Series -- Leading Educators

New Orleans, La. –

Darcy McKinnon works for FirstLine Schools, a network of New Orleans public charter schools. Her job is to help middle school students pick the right high school among the myriad new options in the fast-changing local education landscape and to make a successful transition when they do.

Getting to this position, however, required quite a transition for McKinnon herself. She'd been a classroom teacher here both before and after Hurricane Katrina, but eventually she hit a wall.

"Two years ago I was really kind of exhausted because teaching is a really hard profession, you're on stage all the time," McKinnon says. "I wanted to keep working with kids, I had a lot of experience working with upper middle school age kids, but I was ready to parlay it into something else."

It's a common conundrum for teachers, and the answer for some is to leave education altogether. But McKinnon found a different answer, one that kept her working in New Orleans public schools but now applying her skills and experience in a different way.

One key to this transition was Leading Educators. Executive director Makiyah Moody says the group takes aim at a gap between new teacher development and principal training, helping early and mid-career educators build professional leadership skills that go beyond classroom instruction.

"You may be a phenomenal teacher with your 30 students in your fourth grade class, but you may have some challenges inspiring and motivating the other teachers that are in your building or on your team," says Moody. "I like to think of Leading Educators as the foundation when there's a teacher that may aspire to be a principal or may aspire to be an amazing mentor teacher but just needs a little bit more support in developing those leadership competencies to have the greatest impact that she wants to have."

Leading Educators does this through a two-year fellowship program of training, mentoring and ongoing support and networking. One important facet is visiting successful school districts around the country to study how they overcame challenges New Orleans area schools face. The goal is to make more effective educators, whether they devote their careers to the classroom, move to other school leadership positions or become principals.

"We know from research if teachers feel a sense of efficacy in their roles that they stay longer. So we want to retain high quality teachers so that there's a long-term effect on the students they're serving," says Moody.

The group started in Orleans Parish in 2008, and it's now expanding to other cities to spread some of the ideas that are working for the renewal of New Orleans public education. Back home, it's preparing a new generation of educators with professional skills that are increasingly in demand at independently-run public charter schools with many new in-house leadership needs.

Certainly, the Leading Educators experience has made a difference for Darcy McKinnon, who today foresees a bright future in her new educational career.

"I love my new job," she says. "That combination of being able to find a place where I am challenged professionally but where I know I'm still having an impact on students and families is really, really great."

Visit Leading Educators online to learn more about its program.