Written by Rachel Chewakin
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Heather King remains inspired as an only child of a single parent who was passionate about education and always had dreams of their only daughter going to college. After high school, Heather had different plans and pursued another passion. After completing JROTC, she knew she was going to join the United States Army and had a strong desire to travel. After joining the Army, she traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, where she met her husband while working in a local place of worship with young children. Up until this point, King intended to fulfill her mother’s dream of going to college, so she planned to pursue a medical degree.
Pursuing an education career in the rural South
Much to her surprise, after working with middle and high school students, she fell in love with teaching and knew she wanted to pursue a different career path. Soon after, they re-located to Georgia, where she pursued her degree in Education and English, and English and Secondary Education. She then began teaching in a rural school that served low-income students that predominantly identified as African American.
She shared, “At the time, I had an awesome principal. She was very progressive and my first year there she, was named National Principal of the Year. She was a white woman who had grown up in Jefferson County (where our school was located) and had very high expectations for our students and teachers. I am very thankful that was my first teaching assignment.”
Due to her husband’s re-stationing, they moved to Alabama, where she taught in another rural school and at her new campus, the student demographic was flipped – the student demographic consisted of about 80% white students and 20% African American students, and was a Title I school. At her new campus, she had a Black male principal who had high expectations for kids, great up in the area and was a strong part of the local community.
After another move, her and her husband lived in Oklahoma where King taught composition and developmental remedial classes for students at Cameron University. She shared, “This was the first time I realized that kids can enroll and go to college, but might still end up in high school level courses. All of my experiences instilled in me the importance of college readiness for kids. These experiences highlighted the importance of continuing to have high expectations for students, especially in the highest needs areas.”
Transition to Texas & Uplift Education
At the end of their tour in Oklahoma, her husband retired and they relocated to Fort Worth. She started her journey with seven years of experience when she joined Uplift Education as a seventh grade ELA teacher in Forth Worth, Texas at Uplift Mighty. She eventually transitioned to a reading interventionist role and Dean (Assistant Principal) and served in that position for two years. With motivation from her manager, she applied and earned the Principal role at Uplift Ascend, a new school in which King opened in the 2018-19 school year with 123 sixth-grade students and 12 staff members.
Now in its third year, King has built the campus to eighth grade with 33 staff members leading over 460 students. She shared, “I love what I do and I love working with students. I love coming to campus. You will see me in carline every morning and at lunch talking with students, getting to know their names and stories. I know my students notice these intentions because a teacher shared with me that a student opened up about never having a principal like me that knew their name and was accessible, and that’s important.”
Identity, Wellbeing & Leadership
We asked Heather a few questions about how her identity influences her as a leader and how she prioritizes wellbeing throughout her various educational leadership roles. Read more below about our conversation.
Q: What does mindfulness mean to you?
A: To me, mindfulness means being present at whatever I am doing. Giving my full attention, recognizing, and responding to my emotions. When I am more mindful, I do not ignore how I feel, but I can choose to remain in those feelings or move.
Q: How would you define wellbeing?
A: I define wellbeing as being well in mind, body, and spirit, and doing things to take care of me holistically. I know that I need to understand what makes me feel well and what makes me feel unwell. And, I need to be okay with saying no to what doesn’t fit me and not feeling guilty at saying yes to things that help my own personal wellbeing.
Q: What does mindfulness or wellbeing look like?
A: For me mindfulness looks like not ignoring my emotions but understanding if I can work in a certain emotion or move out of it. For example, if I am running late and my coffee spills, I can recognize that in this moment I am upset and a little frazzled but this is probably not the best way to arrive at work. I now know better strategies to help me move to a calmer state such as breathing or positive thoughts. My wellbeing looks like taking time for me and things that make me feel well. I exercise daily. I take time to prep my lunch and snacks for work to have healthier options. I have quiet time in the morning before I go to work to read my bible and journal. I have also made a point this year to ensure I leave work by 5:00 pm daily and on days I can leave earlier, I take that time.
Q: As you think about the various contexts in which you lived and served, what were the mindsets, practices, or patterns that you built for yourself or those close to you build around you for you to be able sustain and persist as a leader?
A: First, I think about the why behind the work. I knew working with students and in education was my calling. I believe this is my purpose and is what I am supposed to do in life.
Second, I think of what mindsets have been important to me. As a military family, I knew we would move often and that meant I needed to figure out what being adaptable to change really looks like. I knew I needed to cultivate mindsets in myself to persevere through those changes, to work hard, to be collaborative, and to show if I do my job well and continue to care for students, I will be successful, even in a new environment.
Q: As you think about leading through a pandemic as a school leader, what are the specific strategies you have used to persist?
A: I knew coming into school leadership, I wanted the role to be sustainable and I want to be here for a long time. I didn’t think I was taking care of myself very well when I came into this role, and I didn’t want to leave this job because I’m tired but because I have done all that I can do for my school community.
First, I will share one of the elements that drew me to the PIC program was the fact that the leadership curriculum included leadership development and wellbeing development. In our first session, I was able to identify my strengths, desires, and dreams, and how they all intertwined. This was life changing for me because it was not just, about who I show up as at work, but rather, this is who I am as a human. When you try to human in another way, you are not going to be fulfilled, you are not going to be satisfied, and you are not operating in your strengths to be the best that you can be.
I realized when I show up as who I am, I can be confident and more empathetic, compassionate, and communicate effectively. Since then, I have leaned into those strengths and have revisited them to understand how I operate.
Second, I looked at my own fuel category when working through the Be Well, Lead Well assessment and my breath category was close to zero. Before this session, I felt I do not need to breathe, I know how to breathe, and I breathe all the time. I realized I had no idea the detriment I was doing to myself by not taking those breaths or even recognizing my breath. I then started building my practices that have now morphed into yoga, meditating, and running.
Lastly, I will share that I really feel like if I had not had those PIC sessions, I do not know where I would be right now. This has been extremely hard leading through something that you cannot prepare for in order to meet the needs of the district, to support the emotions of our teachers and navigate the emotions of parents who care about their student’s education. I navigate this while also trying to balance being a wife and daughter. I often ask myself, “Are they okay today and am I supposed to be okay today?”
I have really learned to put on my own oxygen mask first and to not feel guilty about it. I was working late hours and there was a constant battle for feeling guilty about work and home life balance. Up until then, there was never a time where I asked myself, “how am I taking care of me?” PIC has helped me to change that focus. Now, I make sure that I have time to take care of Heather and I do not feel guilty about it at all.
Q: It is evident in what you shared about your familial journey how influenced and inspired you have been by your mother, husband and educational environment, that your identity and your core has really influenced who you are as a leader. Can you share about your experience as a Black woman school leader?
A: There is a part of me that has always been a feminist, and I believe women and girls can do things! At the same time, growing up in the South, there is also very much this air of chivalry, what a man is supposed to do, and that has been a constant battle for me.
I had the hardest time in the military because the environment is white and male dominant. As a Black woman in the military, there were times that were extremely difficult to navigate and I had never faced such overt racism or sexism than at that time. I very clearly remember the day we had new a Platoon Sergeant, and she was a Black female. She was phenomenal as a leader, and was equitable, something I did not have in my last Platoon Sergeant who was a White man and who was overtly racist. It was amazing to work under her and I learned so much from her just in that last year of my time in the military of being a strong, Black woman leader.
I also think about my first principal who was a white woman and a very strong female leader, I admire her so much. When I was at her school in 2006, she was ahead of her time in how she led while being equitable in what she wanted for kids. When I started my current Director role, I wrote her a letter just letting her know, “I don’t know if you remember me, but your leadership still has such an impact on me now, in my leadership.”
Navigating the world we are in now, I think back to when I was a Dean and how often I asked myself, “how do I show up in this room?” I want to make sure that I am supposed to be here.
I know that I’m supposed to be in this room, I’m smart enough to be in this room, I’m capable enough to be in this room and when I leave this room, you’re not going to have any doubt about that. During my time in school leadership, I’ve had to learn how to share feedback and opinions differently than what the military expected of me, and learned how to own my leader voice in a way that conveys a positive intent while being a team player.
Being a Black female school leader is different from being a school leader. There have been times where I wonder why things have occurred and ask, “Is it because I’m Black or because I am a female?”
An example of this was the successful opening of my campus in Fort Worth. We had conversations around the campus data, and the goals for our students. I aspired to ensure our campus performance would put us in the top five of the district’s schools.
I also remember a specific conversation with my first principal manager, a white male, about how I will always be compassionate and kind, but that my kindness is not out of weakness when managing and leading my teacher team. I cannot show up as weak. As a Black female leader, there is an expectation of carrying more. You are expected to be able to handle more and to be stronger. In navigating these moments, I stay out of my head and focus on who I know I am.