12/24/18 A fireside chat with Freebird

A fireside chat with Freebird
N.C. Teacher of the Year recounts crazy eight months
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 12/24/18     
Reprinted with permission.

Freebird McKinney, the 2018 N.C. Teacher of the Year, is dressed for the holidays standing beside Williams High School’s mascot mural. On the Friday morning before Christmas break, McKinney delivered hot chocolate to all the Williams teachers.   

Robert Thomason / Times-News

Freebird McKinney, the 2018 N.C. Teacher of the Year, is dressed for the holidays standing beside Williams High School’s mascot mural. On the Friday morning before Christmas break, McKinney delivered hot chocolate to all the Williams teachers.


Freebird McKinney is a very busy man.

On April 20, the Williams High School social studies teacher won the 2018 N.C. Teacher of the Year award. The second he walked off stage, microphones and cameras were pointed at him, and nothing’s been the same since.

“It comes at you really fast and you don’t plan,” McKinney said, Friday, Dec. 21. “I didn’t ever think [I’d win], so I didn’t think about planning. I just kind of showed up at the luncheon and expected to go home the same person.”

Since then, he’s served as an adviser to the State Board of Education and a b o a r d m e m b e r f o r the N.C. Public School Forum, visited 42 different N.C. school districts, and taken a “transformative” trip to China through Go Global N.C.

“All my undergraduate and graduate work had been in Chinese history and philosophy and anthropology, but I had never been,” McKinney said. “So most of it was this ideal of what China was, philosophically and culturally and historically, and so to actually be there and to walk through the Forbidden City and to stand in Tiananmen Square and to stand on the Great Wall of China and then to go into these schools … to sit with the Jiangsu Educational Province, which is in charge of 84 million people and to have a conference with those administrators, it was humbling.”

And he still has seven months left before the 2019 N.C. Teacher of the Year officially takes the reins.

In February, he’ll spend a week with the other 49 state Teachers of the Year at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, C.A. Then he’ll spend a week in Washington, D.C., visit Princeton University in New Jersey and travel to Mexico the last two weeks of June.

That’s not even including the numerous conferences he’s scheduled to attend in between.

“I haven’t said ‘no,’” McKinney said. “I don’t want to say ‘no.’ I want to use this role to the best of our ability to advocate for our profession and our students. And if I say ‘no,’ I miss an opportunity to do that.”

But it’s not all hard work.

One of McKinney’s long-held childhood dreams will come true this summer when he attends Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

“I always wanted to go as a kid,” he said. “And I had this dream of being an astronaut when I was a little kid. I talked about that in my acceptance speech. And I’d like to think that there’s a path that human beings follow and we don’t always understand the stops and the destinations along the way, but in the end I’d like to think there’s a meaning and a purpose to everything. And so … seeing that as a possibility now and being able to let my kids see me in that situation, it’s like, dream on.”

As far as whether all of this will end with him coming back to Walter Williams High School, where he’s taught since 2015, he says he’ll have to do some soul-searching.

“A lot people ask me that and it’s one of those questions where I can’t see the future, but that is my aim and my hope,” McKinney said. “One of the most important realizations I’ve had is that I’m happy, and I was happy as a teacher and I was happy with the daily interactions with my students and I was happy teaching World History. I love the shire and I love this area and all of these amazing experiences have kind of created this duality of who I know I’m happy as and then all of these new experiences and what that means.”

As a teacher, he said, his world was within the walls of his classroom and his school. Now he’s been exposed to the big picture, and he’s ready to make changes that will impact education across the state, even the nation.

“I want to help design solutions to the barriers we see in public education and wherever that role allows me to go, that’s what I’m hoping to do — if that means I’m in the classroom still and able to do it all, I hope, in the end, that’s where I end up,” he said.

But, regardless of where this journey leads him, McKinney will never forget where he comes from.

“I really want to thank the support of the shire,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming … to know how many people are following from a distance. And I’ve always tried, every time I make a post, to be inclusive and let everyone know that I love where I’m from. I love my school, I love my kids, I love my colleagues, I love my family and they’re always on my mind. And I just want everybody in the shire and in the community … to know that that is ultimately where my heart is. I’m just on a different journey right now, but it’s no different than what the original one was: to serve our kids and elevate our profession.”