A Leap of Faith
Educator. Doctoral Student. Preschool Director. Founder of a non-profit. Marine Corps Spouse.
When Kate McKenney began her career teaching in Los Angeles, she expected her job titles would evolve over time with new challenges and exciting opportunities. However, she did not anticipate the Marine Corps to play such a critical role in those changes. With each move, the military life threw her into new situations, forcing her to reevaluate her professional goals and expectations.
Today, she looks back on the highs and lows of each job, and encourages young spouses to stay focused on their passions.
“Make time to invest in yourself,” she said. “Make the time to go back to school or get that work experience. Find the opportunities that help you make the next leap.”
Taking her own advice through the years was not always easy, but with the encouragement of her husband and community, she tapped into her drive to keep working, over and over again.
Back and Forth
Teaching is a popular profession for military spouses for good reason. Teachers are needed everywhere, and with new policies making it easier for spouses to maintain licensure, more opportunities are available without the headache of red tape. Although Kate preferred to teach high school, she was prepared to to shift gears with each move, and often took positions in middle and elementary schools.
“You won’t always teach what you want to teach,” she explained. “But there is opportunity to work. You just have to be flexible.”
After teaching in Los Angeles and Yuma, Kate’s husband received orders to Quantico, Virginia. Kate decided to use that move as an opportunity to dig into her passion for administration and enrolled at George Washington University. While earning her post-masters certificate in administration, she worked in the office of DC public schools, and hoped the next move would mean an administration job. Less than a year later, the orders came and Kate was on her way back to Yuma.
“I had reinvented myself in Washington,” she reflected. “But I couldn’t find any administration work in Yuma.” Her plan for career development hit roadblock after roadblock, and she eventually took a position teaching elementary school. Although she was still working, she felt disheartened. It was not the next step she planned to take. It did not line up with the year of hard work she put in while in DC. But over time, she viewed it as a learning opportunity, one that would make her a more well-rounded administrator or director in the future.
Kate’s second stint in Yuma also opened up two doors that renewed her self-image as a professional woman. The first was an opportunity to teach at a local community college. When interviewing for the job, Kate was told that her experience as a military spouse made her an excellent teacher to students who had not seen much more than Arizona. The value of her worldliness trumped any hesitations about how long she would be able to teach before moving again. In addition to teaching at both the community college and the elementary school, Kate became the Director of Marine Corps Family Team Building, a part of the Family Readiness Program. Connecting both her experiences as a military spouse and her abilities as a teacher, Kate educated spouses, marines, and children on military life issues. That position eventually led her to become the Director of the Child Development Center on base. Finally, the work she did in Washington could be applied, and it sparked a new interest in early childhood.
Addressing a Need
When new orders sent Kate and her family to North Carolina, she began researching preschool options for her children and eventually enrolled them in a school recommended by other military spouses. But after awhile, it became clear that the school was not the right fit for her family. They had attended a cooperative preschool while in Virginia, and as she searched for something similar in the New Bern area, she came up empty handed. Frustrated about her options while also grappling with mixed emotions of moving across the country (again) and being a stay-at-home mom, Kate came up with an idea.
“What if I open my own preschool?”
Kate asked around to see if other people in her community would be interested and the results were positive. She began putting together a professional program that was backed by research, wrote her own business plan, and with her husband, invested money into the idea.
As a military spouse, she was a little intimidated coming into the New Bern community and opening up a new non-profit education program.
“We had been in the area for six months,” she explained. “I thought, ‘Who am I to say that we need a new school in this town?’” But she quickly realized with the guidance of business resources that the key to making her plan successful was having an exit strategy for herself. The business would have to be able to thrive without her because she would inevitably leave it behind in just a few years. It was a natural instinct to try to hide the fact she was a military spouse when presenting the concept to non-military community members. But instead, Kate focused on making the school an integral part of the community, something the community would own long after she and her family packed up and left town.
Together with other military spouses, Kate worked tirelessly before opening the school, and finally she had a business plan, mission, website and launched it on social media. She took a leap of faith, knowing that even if the business was successful, it would only be a small fraction of her professional life. The night she went live on social media, she went upstairs and hid under the covers.
“It was terrifying,” she said. There was no turning back.
Kate’s vision for a school that would address the needs of her family expanded to 35 students, a beautiful location within a church, and a teaching staff. The reason for success? Kate points back to the other spouses who helped get the school off the ground and the mission centered around family. As parents, and especially military spouse parents, schools are an instant way to feel connected to a new town. Using her own experience, Kate designed the school to have the parents involved, and that led to the school feeling like a larger family focused on a fun and educational experience for their children.
Kate’s success in New Bern inspired her to go back to school and helped her when seeking funding for her pursuit. She was selected as a Tillman Scholar by the Pat Tillman Foundation which has provided the opportunity to become a Doctoral student in Entrepreneurial Leadership at the John Hopkins University School of Education. Her dissertation is school readiness for military children, and she hopes to contribute to furthering the policies and programs that support military families with young children. Balancing school with motherhood is enough to feel overwhelmed, but like all military spouses pursuing new degrees, Kate also has the added challenge of handling the household.
“My husband is nothing but supportive,” Kate said. “But you are the rock. You are responsible.”
For Kate and her family, it has helped that her husband not only recognizes the challenges of being a military spouse professional, but he encourages her to keep pursuing her passions, even when it seems impossible.
Selling Yourself as a Military Spouse
Kate has often sat on the other side of the interview table, trying to find qualified employees for both the Childhood Development Center in Yuma and her school in New Bern. She has seen countless spouses over the years who are smart, capable, and willing to work. The key, she says, is to present yourself as a professional.
“Show how much you can offer and how much you can contribute, even in a limited time,” she advises. Learn about yourself and your interests, and refine that into something you can market to employers. With today’s resources and policy changes in the works, it’s getting easier for spouses to think about themselves and their professional goals. Find what you’re passionate about and encourage fellow military spouses to do the same. With encouragement from the community, more spouses will feel that working is possible, even with the added challenges of military life.