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Learning Library Blog Lakisha Brinson: Leading With Empathy
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Lakisha Brinson: Leading With Empathy

By Nicole Krueger
July 1, 2022
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Lakisha Brinson used to envision herself writing cards for Hallmark.

An introvert with a proclivity for introspection, she understood early on that people need to feel like their voices are being heard.

“Connectedness is important to me, and so is getting people to see that connectedness,” says the director of instructional technology and library services for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Just making sure people feel heard and validated, honestly, is one of the things that matter most to me.”

Although her greeting card career never materialized, Brinson found a way to leverage her empathy into a role she hadn’t imagined for herself: overseeing instructional technology and digital learning for 130 schools. In a large metro district where dozens of schools exercise autonomy over their academic programming, embedding technology throughout the system requires a user-centered approach and the ability to adapt to the varied needs of Nashville’s diverse tapestry of schools.

“I’m really focused on how to systematically and strategically meet the needs of all of our users, and what partnerships we should have to make sure we’re on the cutting edge of computer science,” she says.

Destined for leadership

Brinson didn’t initially see herself pursuing a career in edtech leadership, but the skills were always there. As a teen she led Bible studies and organized bake sales for her church’s youth ministry, kindling a passion for both teaching and service. That, combined with a love of reading and technology, spurred her to pursue a master’s degree in library science, and for the next several years she bounced back and forth between the classroom and the school library.

“It was me just doing the work. I just wanted to be part of something that mattered and that meant something to me and to the community as a whole,” she says. “When I really started thinking through what I was trying to do, at the root of it was service.”

Although she loved being a librarian, she hungered to expand her impact and eventually left to pursue her doctorate in instructional leadership. It wasn’t long, however, before her research on the efficacy of technology drove her back into the library.

“I realized that to really understand this work, I had to live it. I went back to school while I was working on my doctorate so I could validate my research,” she says. “Who’s crazy like that? Only this girl.”

By that time, edtech was advancing rapidly, and the world had changed dramatically. In 2013, she led the charge to integrate technology into her library and started working with teachers on schoolwide approaches to literacy grounded in project-based learning. Her innovative work began earning her attention at the national level, and two years later she became a finalist for the School Library Journal National Librarian of the Year.

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Her big moment came in 2017, however, when she landed her current role as a district leader.

On her first day, she recalls, “I was working with a high-priority school, and I had never been in a district role. I had people come in from all over the nation wanting to learn about project-based learning, and I had to speak in front of them. I was terrified.”

A colleague pulled her aside for a pep talk.

“She said, ‘You’re on a different level now, so buckle up. We’re doing this.’ ”

On the leading edge of tech integration

Since then, Brinson has continued to nurture key partnerships and push her district to the leading edge of technology integration. A few years ago, just before COVID hit, her learning technology team started a Minecraft program that combined problem solving with inquiry-based learning, culminating in a build challenge for K-8 students: Recreate any Nashville landmark within the game.

“It was amazing,” she says. “My team watched every single video and provided feedback and comments. We also delivered swag and certificates to participants in the challenge. Some schools called everybody into the cafeteria and made it a thing. Some tweeted it all over social media. It was a special moment for those kids.”

With more than 35 schools participating in the Minecraft program, the district clocked the most unique logins Microsoft had ever seen. The company invited Brinson’s team to share their success via broadcast and sent film crews into the schools, but the pandemic delayed the project. Metro Nashville Schools also got to become a founding partner of a new coding program and was one of five districts in the world to participate in a two-day pilot training with Microsoft.

Brinson, a graduate of the Consortium for School Network’s Early Career CTO Academy, credits the strong women in her life — from her mom, who still works full time at age 76, to her mentor, fellow educator Regina Etter — for helping her grow from a timid young teacher who wore her heart on her sleeve into an award-winning leader who stands strong in her beliefs.

“I want to really think through how to lead with who you are. I don’t have to let go of what I believe in to be effective leader,” says Brinson, who continues to push herself through professional learning courses on leadership, mentorship and strengths-based learning.

“Education is a career where you’re always learning and evolving. It drives me, fuels me.”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.