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Where is Freebird? On the road, still serving schools

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  • Freebird McKinney believes "education is soul crafting." From 13 years of teaching in the classroom to his role with Participate Learning, McKinney is taking this lesson with him as he seeks to help students self actualize and schools grow.
  • Global education has long been a passion of @FreebirdsShire. With @ParticipateLrng, he is helping schools embrace and implement global education to facilitate student success.
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Freebird McKinney is no stranger to burning rubber on the highways of North Carolina. As the director of partnership development at Participate Learning, which is a B Corporation that works with schools and districts to develop language proficiency and global skills to improve student connectedness and competitiveness, Mckinney spends about one day each week on the road visiting partner sites. It’s especially fitting that EdNC’s interview with him occurred in a school bus during a site visit earlier in June, where Mckinney attended the grand opening of West Oxford Elementary School’s community garden.

EdNC Reporter Alli Lindenberg interviews McKinney on a school bus in Granville County. Photo courtesy of Grayson Morrow

The name Freebird Mckinney might ring a bell for some of you. For one, it’s not an easy name to forget. EdNC has also written about him several times over the years. First when he was selected as the 2018-19 Burroughs Wellcome Fund NC Teacher of the Year. Then when he took on the role of State Board of Education’s director of legislative affairs and community outreach in 2020.

“I haven’t left the classroom. The classroom just got bigger. The General Assembly, the Department of Public Instruction, and now visiting the districts. Those are all classrooms and that’s what global education is about. When I took these roles, I knew the classroom was just going to expand and the world would become that,” said McKinney.

Mckinney’s journey in education transformation began long before his current role at Participate Learning, though. It started in a classroom, with a passion for life, an insatiable curiosity, and an affinity for learning, all of which he still carries with him today. As an undergraduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mckinney studied anthropology and philosophy. Years later, he went on to teach IB Philosophy at Grimsley Senior High School, where he changed the lives of many students, including my own. I took Mckinney’s IB philosophy class during the 2011-2012 school year.

“That class really allowed us to focus on the growth of the human being,” said McKinney.

McKinney with Grimsley High School students. Photo courtesy of Freebird McKinney

Teaching IB Philosophy was game changing for Mckinney, whose interest in history and philosophy predated his teaching career. He earned his master’s degree in history from UNC-Greensboro before he made a lateral entry into teaching in 2003. But it was during his time as a teacher of IB Philosophy that he was able to solidify the ideas driving his core mission – being an educator focused on leading students to their own self-actualization for the benefit of themselves and their communities.

“Oftentimes, I think we get lost in looking at test scores or looking at academic growth and we forget about the growth of the human,” McKinney said.

Philosophical influences

Mckinney spent 13 years teaching for North Carolina public schools. All of his time as teacher was spent in Guilford County Schools and the Alamance-Burlington Public School System. He strived to incorporate his life philosophy into every class he taught, which included world history, European history, philosophy, and other social studies courses. 

“Education is soul crafting.”

Dr. Cornel West, American philosopher, political activist, and public intellectual

Many people influenced his philosophy as an educator, but two in particular stand out as guides — Dr. Cornel West and Steve Maraboli. West’s idea of education as soul crafting and Maraboli’s belief in being the hero of your own story are at the heart of Mckinney’s philosophy for education and for life.

“If you are not the hero of your own story, then you’re missing the whole point of your humanity.” 

Steve Maraboli, author and veteran

Back in his IB Philosophy classroom at Grimsley Senior High School, Mckinney covered his classroom in posters, including Lao Zi, Socrates, and many others. Now, he takes these inspirations on the road with him and into classrooms through the partnership work he does with Participate Learning.

Global education advocate

McKinney’s son practices piano in the living room in front of their map wall. Photo courtesy of Freebird McKinney

There’s a world map in Mckinney’s living room. On it you’ll find small post-its indicating where he and his family have traveled over the years. It’s also a visual reminder of his passion for travel as a tool for global education. Right now, Mckinney visits partner sites weekly, many of them utilizing Participate Learning’s Global Leaders framework.  

Mckinney’s colleagues value his ability to build relationships with partners across the state.

Those partners include Appalachian State University’s Reich College of Education and the GEAR UP College Access Partnerships. The Reich College of Education is partnering with Participate Learning to offer a Global Leaders Scholars program, which is a professional development learning program focused on global teaching, learning, and leadership. GEAR UP offers the Global Leaders framework integration to partner schools as they embark on their global journey.

“Freebird is really good at creating partnerships with other organizations. The partnership at App State, for example and with all sorts of organizations that at some level are about supporting education and about enriching public education in North Carolina. That is really where he is thriving with us,” said Andy Barron, director of public relations at Participate Learning.

“Freebird is able to synthesize education priorities with global learning in ways that people can understand and see clearly,” said David Young, CEO at Participate Learning. “He epitomizes what former superintendent Bill Harrison once said, ‘What we call global education, the rest of the world simply calls education.'”

Check out this case study on West Oxford Elementary School.

You can follow Mckinney’s work on his personal twitter account, @FreebirdsShire. He is also often featured on Participate Learning’s account as well, @ParticipateLrng.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.