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Derek McCoy: Educators can perform superhuman feats

By Tim Douglas
July 14, 2015
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The writing is on the wall regarding his future. So were the drawings and the characters.

It was all there, the inspiration and encouragement in Derek McCoy’s bedroom at his home in rural Georgia.

But how was he supposed to know that Luke Cage (aka Power Man), Mister Terrific and Captain America were not only entertaining, they were also educational and would serve him well in his career? Some children learn extraordinary and lifelong lessons from Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss. McCoy learned from the X-Men.

“As an educator, I say, ‘Let’s perform superhuman feats,’” McCoy explains. “I do believe one person can take down an army. We can achieve what we dream.”

For the past 20 years, McCoy, now the principal at Spring Lake Middle School in Cumberland County, North Carolina, has been in search of perfection in a variety of educational positions. Like many educators, he started out as a teacher and then worked as a director of curriculum and assistant principal. And like many young adults, it took him some time to find the right path, Marvel and DC Comics notwithstanding.

In college, he started with political science because he “loves how history and politics worked together to shape our world.” That love pushed him forward – he holds a degree in political science from Georgia Southwestern State University – but something was missing, and a different, more powerful love took over.

“I was all over the place when I went to college and then graduated,” McCoy says. “I had a lot of interests and a lot of different jobs, but I always connected with kids. Finally, my wife said, ‘What are you doing? You love working with kids, so do it!’ Then I got my first assignment as a reading teacher and I loved it. I was finally doing professionally what I loved to do personally – help kids.”

He may not have the ability to fly, and he can’t leap buildings in a single bound, but he listens and connects by staying active at school and engaged online. He walks the halls of his school each morning and leads two Twitter chats: #Edfocus and #ncadmin.

McCoy feels his career really took off about five years ago when he got “future-focused” and started to understand the deep value of collaboration and professional learning networks (PLNs), like those hosted through ISTE, that allow him to build personal relationships with teachers, administrators and experts around the world and then turn these relationships into resources and learning.

“When we start out, we all want to get good at teaching,” he says. “Then we want to keep improving. Through my PLNs, we can start pushing the impossible. We should be able to come to school with the goal of having kids blow our minds.”

And his hard work has gained attention. Last year, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named him, along with two others, a national digital principal of the year for “exhibiting bold, creative leadership in his drive to harness the potential of new technologies to further learning goals.”

But despite the awards and the innovative use of technology – #ncadmin, for example, is the only chat in North Carolina designed specifically to help leaders in the state learn best practices – for McCoy, it always circles back to people driving his passion. These people include his parents who “let me be weird and start dreaming at an early age (thanks to my comic books),” and educators he has never met who have challenged, inspired and encouraged him to take risks.

“Technology is a benefit,” he says. “We – educators – need to design and deliver the best instruction for our students, and technology is a major part of it. But we don’t teach subjects. We teach kids. And the best teaching is personal.”

Compliments of his son and colleagues, McCoy is still surrounded and motivated by four walls of superheroes. His office at school is adorned with posters and collages, and he will always be, as he proclaims, “a comic book nerd” because he still draws inspiration from the stories and characters, especially as the narratives and dialogue change with the years.

“The stories are contemporary now,” McCoy says. “The problems reflect current times and not all problems get solved, but there is always hope…comics connect with me as an educator. We need kids to be dreamers, then we give them the skills to chase their dreams.”

Luke Cage is McCoy’s favorite character for many reasons, but what stands out for him is the character is ultimately committed to the community. The superhero joined the new version of The Avengers because he wanted to solve problems at home and not on some distant planet.

Cage has said, “We’re here to fight what can’t be fought alone, for the people who need us to.”

When it comes to his philosophy on education, McCoy couldn’t have said it any better himself.