Kelisa Wing is the assistant principal at West Point Elementary School in New York, but she remembers that her relationship with education did not have an ideal start.
As a first-grader, she struggled in the classroom because of problems at home. Her parents’ fighting took an emotional toll on Wing, and her performance at school suffered. Wing’s teacher scheduled a conference with her mother to inform her that Wing would need to repeat first grade.
“It was very embarrassing,” says Wing. “I felt like a failure. I remember watching my friends moving on, and I was staying back.”
She says she only began sharing this story after winning the 2017 Department of Defense Education Activity Teacher of the Year Award.
Looking back, she took away an important lesson from what happened to her in first grade, particularly from her first-grade teacher’s behavior.
“The thing that stuck out to me [was] she never really stopped to ask what was happening in our personal lives,” she says. “She just gave up on me.”
After a successful second year in first grade and decades of success that followed, Wing says this incident forced her to re-think the meaning of failure. She integrated these reflections into her teaching.
“We talk about failing and disappointment,” she says. “The word ‘dis-’ means ‘not’ and ‘appointment’ means ‘time.’ So sometimes it’s just not your time, but it’s all gonna work out the way it’s supposed to in the end.”
Wing reinforces the idea that failure is only a point of departure.
“I tell my students we fail forward,” she says. She hangs the acronym FAIL on her classroom, which stands for ‘First Attempt in Learning.’
The memory of being held back pushes her to be a more resilient educator, she says.
“I had a first attempt in learning. It didn’t go so well. But that just really shaped who I am now,” she explains. “I cannot give up on a child. I can’t let a kid fail.”
Through high school, Wing knew she was college bound. In her junior year, she volunteered at a summer camp, where she discovered her passion for working with children. She decided she wanted to become a teacher after this experience.
The military provided her with the financial support she needed to pursue her dream.
As soon as she started in the military, she enrolled in college courses as an English major at the University of Maryland. She attended classes at night and on weekends.
Wing says she has carried the warrior’s ethos she learned in the Army into her teaching. “I will never accept defeat,” she says. “I will never quit and I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
She was stationed in Korea for a while, after which she transferred to Fort Knox, then to Fort Campbell and then to Germany. Wing married in 2004 and had her first child in 2005. While in Germany, she earned a master’s degree in secondary education through the University of Phoenix. She later completed an educational specialist advanced degree from Phoenix.
“Some people have a misconception that online learning is easier,” she says. “It is not. It’s just as rigorous, if not more.”
For Wing, the online education offered by the University of Phoenix allowed her to grow as a scholar and educator.
She recalls a student, Dishaun, who was one of the first disruptive students she encountered.
“Instead of yelling at him or fussing at him in front of his peers, I just left him a little sticky note on his desk that said, ‘Meet me after class,’” she explains. “I got him one-on-one, and I asked him, ‘What is it? Why are you doing this?’ Because I got him away from his peers, he really had to be reflective.”
This past spring, Wing attended Dishaun’s high school graduation, after which Dishaun joined the U.S. Air Force. He plans to become a special education teacher following his service.
Wing is grateful to her family for their continuous support. When she decided to pursue her doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Phoenix, she knew it would require them to make more sacrifices.
She remembers not being able to read to her daughter and writing papers at soccer games during her master’s program.
But when she asked her daughter about pursuing doctoral studies, Wing says she responded, “Yeah Mom, we understand. There’s other kids that need you to have this, so it’s OK with us.”
- This story also appears in the Oct. 19, 2017 print edition of Diverse.