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Student Profile: Keith Wheeler, Master of Education in Leadership
Keith Wheeler graduated from City University of Seattle in 2007 with a Master of Education in Leadership, and is fast on his way towards earning a Doctor of Education in Leadership from California State University. Since graduating from CityU, he’s served as an Assistant Principal in the Kent and Federal Way School Districts, and as a Principal in the El Monte Union High School District, located in Southern California.
His most recent position is as Founder and CEO of Infinite Motivation Consulting Firm, and he’s also published a book titled “H.O.P.E.: Helping Other Pursue Excellence,” where he shares insights into his personal triumphs.
City University of Seattle had the chance to catch up with Keith recently, and he was gracious enough to share some insight into his time in our program.
City University of Seattle (CU): What motivated you to become an educator, and was there a moment when you knew education was the field for you?
Keith Wheeler (KW): Honestly, I was pursuing a career in Law, or so I thought, by way of my undergraduate studies. I majored in Criminal Justice, with a minor in Sociology. Interestingly enough, I had an epiphany before talking my LSAT: I thought of all of the people, including, but not limited to: family, friends, and educators that maintained a profound impact on my life…instantly, everything changed at this very moment. Within one week from my undergraduate culmination, I applied and was accepted to the Masters In Teaching program. The moment itself was more of an internal reflection, as opposed to any outward expressions. In this moment, I was forced to decide, regarding the impact I wanted to impart upon the earth, and at a very young age. Becoming an educator was not an option for me, per se — it was a true decision, based on morals, personal values, and a spiritual commitment to see and make the world a better place.
I always say to people: The two most important professions on this earth are: First, a doctor- they can save a life with their bare hands. Second, an educator – they can also save, yet transform a human life through meaningful exchanges that impact the heart, mind, and quality of thinking.
CU: We hear a lot of graduates attribute their success to what they learned at CityU. What was your experience like at CityU?
KW: I am a person that prides himself on the authenticity of the relationships that I develop. While at CityU, Dr. John Armenia, my former mentor and Director of the Education Leadership Program took me under his wing. During my first meeting with him, he said to me, candidly, “As a leader, you do not dress for the job you have…you dress, think, and prepare for the job you want.” Again, this is just a mere reflection of the caliber of people that have blessed my life. He poured into my confidence and shared with me beyond the classroom experience. He co-created professional goals with me, while in the program. The goals we created exceeded the principalship. Oddly enough, it was like in-depth preparation of my professional vision, truly before things would come to fruition. He also said, “You are a superintendent, now…see beyond right now, while thriving within day-to-day operations.” Such powerful words that I carry with me, daily. I spoke to these words during his memorial service that I was asked to speak at. I truly miss him, but more importantly his love and mentorship.
My courses were filled with active practitioners that were knowledgeable, forward-thinking, and accomplished in their fields. Through coursework, I developed relationships with attorneys, curriculum experts, facilities, and business professionals – all of which are integral partnerships associated with leadership. CityU truly placed me in the hands of high-quality people that nurtured my talents and career aspirations.
CU: Your passion has taken you extremely far in your career. What initially inspired you to pursue a position in leadership?
KW: In Seattle Public Schools, I worked under the most inspirational Principal, BiHoa Caldwell. While teaching in the Seattle Public Schools, I watched this small (not that size maters) woman have such a commanding presence within one of the most at-risk schools in the district. During passing periods – she was present in the halls. During lunch – she was present. During PTA nights – she was present. During community and school conflict – she was present. Never in fear, ever. She knew every students name- impressive, considering our school was over 800 students. Most memorable was her character, passion, and commitment to learning. She never took one day for granted. Also, she looked and fought for every resource that the school desperately needed. Once she secured the supports, the resources were brought back into the building to ensure proper services were delivered to every child, and every day. She ignored the status quo, in relationship to quality learning conditions, personal service, and dedication to the craft of teaching and learning. She was someone that I admire, love, and respect. I wanted to replicate her passion, as I have never witnessed this type of leader since those years spent with her. Honestly, she was the most knowledgeable, result-centered, dedicated, and uncompromising leader that I have met in my life. She is the sole reason that I decided to make the transition from a classroom teacher to an administrator.
CU: As a leader in education, what are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? What has been your greatest accomplishment to date?
KW: To be honest, in life, I try not to give credibility to the challenges that I face. Hence, I truly approach every challenge as an isolated opportunity for personal, professional, and spiritual development. I was an acting Assistant Principal at 26 years old. My youth has always caused people to be amazed or stare with an incredulous look, mumbling, “how did he get in this role and this fast?” However, I have been fortunate to have received training and mentorship by some of the most well-regarded educational leaders, researchers, and other technical experts in my profession. To be considered the best, you must surround yourself by and with the best. I take each exchange with everyone I contact seriously, as it only improves my worldview and perspective. When I say I love education, I truly mean what I say.
If I had to think of a true challenge, it is always being deeply-seeded in providing all kids with a life-changing educational experience that changes the trajectory of their lives. When I go into classrooms, and see that staff do not have access to meaningful manipulatives, technology, or general materials – that hurts me. When I see students entering the school with tattered clothes, to the point that their confidence and hope for better circumstances begins to die – that is painful. When I see a mother or father that is intimidated of the school culture – for whatever reason -this hurts me. Honestly, this is why I am committed to human service through education. With each day, we have an opportunity to have someone restore their faith, dream bigger, and see dreams realized-all through a quality education. This is the true power of leadership, whether you are in the classroom, sweeping the floors, or answering phones – you play a critical role in the success and overall organizational health of the school culture. Everyone matters.
To date, my most memorable accomplishment was the time where I was handed the keys to my classroom as a new teacher. I felt empowered. I cried in the classroom, as I knew this was destiny clashing with reality. I can remember every detail of my first day, and the name of every child. I felt powerful. I felt responsible. Second to this was becoming a father. I have identical twin boys, Camren and Christian Wheeler. They inspire me, more than words can describe. Being a father has provided me with a greater sense of passion and attentiveness to other children-ultimately treating them like they are my very own.
CU: Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for educators out there who would like to move into a leadership role?
KW: Before you consider taking any leadership outside the classroom, as yourself this: What is my reason for making this very important decision? It can’t be because your mother or father was a principal of superintendent. It can’t be for the position, alone. It can’t be for the financial rewards. It can’t be for anything other than a deep-seeded passion that is aimed at the improvement of mankind. You truly have to make an internal pact to leave the world in a better place…think big, and your impact will cover more ground than you initially anticipated.
When researching school districts, truly do your due diligence. Go and set an appointment to meet with someone in different departments, just to have an authentic feel for the culture. While this is very surface, it still gives you a solid footing for your future decisions, prior to accepting a position. Lastly, never underestimate the power of mentorship. Find a mentor. Meet with your mentor regularly. No matter how strong and committed we may be, we are prone to error and need guidance.
Go and change the world, until it’s changed.
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