When she was growing up in Ohio, an ice cream truck came by every afternoon in Diane McKee’s neighborhood, and her grandmother told her that if she filled a bucket full of dandelion weeds from her yard, she would give her the ten cents she needed to buy an ice cream. In a hurry for that ice cream, McKee fluffed up the dandelions. But her grandmother stomped her foot in the bucket, and reminded the children that the bucket needed to be full.
“If she was paying us for our work, she expected our best efforts,” says McKee, who has just been named 2016 Florida Teacher of the Year. “Although I was only nine at the time, I still remember that lesson and my work ethic has reflected what she would expect from me still today.”
It’s a lesson McKee, 58, had ample opportunity to put into practice when she pursued her bachelor’s degree in Middle Grades Education from Kennesaw State University while caring for her two small children, then 2 and 5. It wasn’t easy getting up at 4 a.m. to study at the kitchen table before waking her kids up for breakfast, and missing trick or treating to study for an exam, but her work ethic and the unconditional support of her family pulled her through. “After eight years, I graduated summa cum laude, and my husband and children—then ten and thirteen—shared in the celebration,” says McKee.
Her husband’s job transfer led the family to Tampa, where McKee began to teach at Williams Middle Magnet School, an authorized IB Middle Years Programme, in an environment that she says helped her grow personally and professionally. Yet she says she couldn’t help asking, “Why me?” when she won her Teacher of the Year Award. However, a meeting with another teacher inspired her.
“She had retired from the Girl Scouts before starting her teaching career,” says McKee. “Somebody actually told her that nobody would be interested in her as a teacher at her age, but she was not going to let her dream pass by and, at 68, she’s teaching eighth grade language arts with an energy and passion that is admired by all those who are lucky enough to be around her. She led me to change my mantra to “Why not me?” and I will carry her strength and courage with me as I move forward in representing the state next year. If we can do it, so can you. Identify your dream, your passion, and go after it.”
What do you think is the secret to your family’s success?
The key in my family lies in our ability to laugh. Throughout the years, struggles and difficulties have crossed our paths, but we always found a way to be silly and enjoy laughing together.
What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is the loss of health. After witnessing health issues wreak havoc on families around me, I fear not having the physical or mental capacity to enjoy life. The pain and suffering of loved ones who have lost their mental sharpness or their physical strength to participate in activities that were always so important drives the message home that as I age, the same will happen to me.
What advice would you give to other women?
The one piece of advice that I would pass on to other women would be to know that it is never too late to chase your dreams. Graduating from college at 40, my teaching career started late, but the rewards have been tremendous! It would have been easy to stay at home and never start that first class, but growing and developing were too important. As I reflect on all the students that have touched my life and others who have sent sweet notes referencing my impact on them, I realize how much I would have missed in life if I had not become a teacher. The ability to impact students continues to drive me forward.
What is your proudest moment?
It doesn’t matter whether the children are my own or those I teach, what matters to me is that children find their strength, their courage, and their voice. There is no greater reward in life than witnessing a child’s excitement and smiles as they experience confidence in expressing themselves. Watching children discover their confidence is like magic and I have never felt more pride than I felt when watching these children blossom.
What is your biggest achievement?
With a weak background in math, I bought a teacher’s edition and studied and taught myself math to prepare myself for the rigors of college. After receiving a 52 on my first statistics test, I cried all the way home. However, working hard and not giving up provided me the opportunity to grow and learn that with hard work, I could accomplish anything. I earned an A in that course. This success was a catalyst for my other classes. Since I had been out of school for many years, my biggest achievement was managing to graduate summa cum laude from Kennesaw State University after eight long years while raising two children and running a household.
What makes you happy?
I am happy when I have all of my family together for holidays as we cook meals together and play games. The stresses of work are put aside as we just enjoy one another’s company. We curl up on sofa to watch movies, play board games, or sometimes just sprawl out on the sofa to share stories about our lives into the wee hours of the morning.
How do you relax and take time for yourself?
Yoga relieves my stress, relaxes my muscles, and builds strength in the core. I also ride my bike, float on a raft while reading a good novel, have dinner with close friends or watch movies.
What kind of message would you like to give women in the community?
Stay involved. The community has so many ways to give back so find the one area that matters most to you and give some of your time, energy or money. The biggest reward is always the one that focuses on somebody else benefiting. As a teacher, I watch students who need mentors and research demonstrates the improved graduation rates of students that have worked with a mentor. Every pair of hands helps and you are needed.
What else would you like to share?
Raising children is difficult. Teaching is difficult. Children do not come with an operator’s manual and the parenting books definitely do not agree on best practice. The hardest part is to forgive yourself for the mistakes you make along the way and remember that what matters the most is giving them your time and giving them your love. Above all else, talk to your children. Keeping the door for communication open provides a forum to work through whatever may come your way.