ATLANTIC – It’s a question that most young people have trouble answering – what path will I take in life?
Atlantic High School Principal Heather McKay was no different.
“Initially, I think I was in fifth grade, and the first career I remember wanting was a mechanic,” she said. “Because I used to get frustrated that my real dad, bless his heart, he was not mechanical in any way. He was a farm kid, but wasn’t mechanical. And I thought, ‘you should know how to fix (mechanical) things.’”
But as she entered sixth and seventh grade, the dream of being mechanic gave way to a new dream.
“I actually wanted to become an aerospace engineer, and I wanted to join the air force,” she said.
That was likely influenced by her family. Her maternal grandfather was in the army, and he fought in the Korean war. Her paternal grandfather wanted to be part of the military, but couldn’t join due to having flat feet. But he still had that military connection, working as an electrician at Offut Air Force Base. Her older brother, John, just recently retired from the air force after 30 years.
Things changed again in high school as McKay considered being an attorney, and the idea of being an engineer was also appealing.
But something that started in her childhood seemed to show she was on a path of education.
McKay was born in Nebraska, and grew up in Colorado, eventually moving back to Nebraska when she was in high school. She had an unique style of education in the fact that she attended year round school. Students will still get breaks from school, but it depended on the program track they were studying. And even if McKay was on a break from school, she was likely to still be seen in the halls.
“Whenever I had a break, I would always go and help my former teachers,” she said. “When I was in middle school, I would go back and help my elementary teachers,” she said.
It was no different in high school, and even when she went onto secondary education, she was coming back “to help with extra curricular activities, (working with the) cheerleaders, directing the spring musical,” at her former high school.
Even the college she attended seemed to lead her to that educational path. While she originally had her heart set on going to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, a planned college visit there didn’t turn out as well as she expected.
“Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong on that visit,” she said. While the experience left her panicked — “Now what do I do?” she asked herself– her back up plan worked spectacularly.
“I’ll just go to Peru (college) for a year, and figure it out,” she said.
What she figured out was she’d “become a math teacher.”
But even that didn’t seem like the complete right fit.
“But then, (I thought) that’s too rigid,” she said. “I need freedom.”
So she opted for a secondary education English/Language Arts degree.
But one year would turn into so much more.
“I fell in love with Peru,” she said. “Peru was the perfect fit for me.”
She met many great people and great professors, and she met her future husband Paul there. He was also hoping to go into the teaching profession. He got internships to Clarinda Academy, and when he graduated got a teaching job there.
“He really liked the people there,” she said. “He moved up in the ranks.”
They married in June of 1996, while McKay was still in college, and she was student teaching at Clarinda High School as well as working at the academy part time as well.
Joining the Air Force was still in the back of McKay’s mind, but a significant event at the academy inevitably ruled out that path.
“I broke my ankle doing physical restraint training at the academy,” she said.
Her ankle broke in four places, she had to have emergency surgery, and “I had to have four screws put in my ankle, which then, ‘Yeah, can’t join the air force now.’ Which was okay. Again, that was not my path.”
But that experience helped her learn how to appreciate what she had.
“I student taught from wheelchair,” she said, while also teaching a student who was also using a wheelchair. She said she learned a lot from that student, and, “It was just a great way to have a different perspective on just the everyday challenges that you take for granted, that I definitely took for granted.”
After student teaching in Clarinda, she assumed she would eventually teach there full time. She worked as substitute teacher there, and one day the principal told her there was English/Journalism teacher position available in Atlantic.
“That got the ball rolling (to be part of the Atlantic School System),” she said.
She said Atlantic had an excellent journalism program overseen by Mary Turner, and she remembers the different stages, whether it was using the cut and paste method of layout to moving from film to digital camera.
“I loved film photography,” she said, and she never wanted to move to digital world, even proclaiming once, “We are never having digital cameras.”
But, “Then I got a digital camera.,” she said.
With film, she said, “You would take two rolls of film and hope you got three (usable) pictures. Now, I take 200 pictures a night. (You look at them and think), ‘Oh, yeah, these are good.’”
She continued teaching, started having children, and if that wasn’t enough, was asked by some friends if she wanted to participate in a leadership program in the early 2000’s. While that could have been a stepping stone to working in administration, she didn’t think she wanted to jump into that role. But in 2009, she and Josh Rasmussen, who is current Atlantic Middle School Principal, helped out Atlantic High School Principal Roger Herring with some administrative duties, including attendance and discipline.
McKay always saw Herring as a close friend and mentor from her time in Atlantic –“I could speak volumes of him — such an amazing person,” she said – and it was tough when he finally decided it was time for his next chapter in life.
“(He) pulled me into the office to let me know he made the decision to retire,” she said. “When he told me was retiring, I was devastated. I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t ready for it.”
That development lead again to questions for McKay.
“Are you going to apply?”
The answer came back again to, “I love the classroom. I don’t know that I’m going to apply.”
Then one night she was out to dinner with Cathy Knuth and Jessica Fincel, and she got the same question again.
“I just haven’t decided,” she said, while asking herself, “Is that what I want to do?”
Then Knuth said something that made the difference.
“Cathy told me that her son Trevor and another student said, ‘We think McKay should apply.’”
McKay had taught both of the students, and that comment seemed to kick start her into action.
“All right. If they think I should, I’m going to try,” she said. “Because I didn’t want to play the ‘what if’ game. It was a vote of confidence for me. It’s different when you hear it from kids versus when you hear it from adults.”
While she said it was challenging – moving into role where you were “on the other side of the desk” of many people that she is close friends with and having a lot of new things to learn – she has continued in the position for 10 years.
“I remember the first year in administration with Josh,” she said, and at the “end of the year (we thought) ‘Okay, we’ve seen it all.’ We had so much happen. And then the second year (comes and we thought), ‘we haven’t seen anything.’”
She said the important part is “Coming to terms that everyday is going to be different,” and if you’re “Coming from place of service and really looking for how to help others grew and learn, you can figure it out.”
And it all started from spending time helping teachers throughout her elementary, middle school and high school career. “I really think (my passion for this) was because of the relationships I had with those adults in my life,” she said. “That’s why I got into education. I wanted to work with young people. I wanted to help guide them like so many had guided me.”