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A Journey into Memphis Education – Mckenzie Cohen

Medical school to education is quite the career shift.

After graduating from North Carolina Chapel Hill, McKenzie Cohen was on track for medical school. However, an unanswered interest in education resulted in her joining Teach for America- Memphis. The two-year commitment seemed like a great compromise before embarking on her journey through medical school. She did not intend for her corps experience to change the entire trajectory of her career, but that is exactly what it did.

Her corps experience teaching mathematics was challenging yet rewarding and a true journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, after completion, she knew her calling was to teach and rooted herself right here in Memphis. Cohen joined the staff at The Collegiate School of Memphis in 2010 as the Director of Academic Achievement. In 2012, she received her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from Christian Brothers University and was named Principal & Dean of Academics at Collegiate for the 2013-2014 school year.

The Collegiate School of Memphis is a private, college preparatory school, providing both middle and high school scholars with the highest quality education within a disciplined and caring environment so that each scholar may fully realize their God-given potential.

Cohen has truly committed herself to a lifetime in education, and Collegiate thrives under her thoughtful leadership. She is truly making a difference in the future of our community and ensuring positive outcomes for students. We got the chance to learn more about Cohen’s journey from TFA-Memphis to Collegiate and why Memphis became her home.

Where were you initially from, and what brought you to Memphis? 

I spent most of my childhood in a suburb outside of Chicago and moved to Memphis after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to be a part of the 2007 Teach for America Corp.

How did TFA Memphis change the trajectory of your career path? 

Prior to joining TFA Memphis, I was preparing to attend medical school.  I have always been interested in education and teaching so the opportunity to teach before starting medical school was very appealing to me.  However, after completing my two-year TFA commitment I realized that where I was being called to serve was in education in Memphis. (and here I am, 15 years later, still in education, but running a COVID clinic out of my office…so maybe medicine found me right where I am). 

How did your corps experience prepare you for your current position at Collegiate? 

The two-year corps experience was a remarkable time of transformation for me.  I was grossly unprepared for what I would experience in my classroom as a first-year teacher and a recent college graduate new to a professional work environment. Candidly, I struggled every single day to keep my head above water and give my students the best opportunity to learn as much math as possible in the time we had together.  There were several other TFA math teachers at my placement school and we bonded over our shared struggles and a common passion to get our students to fall in love with math.  

Ultimately, data showed that my students did learn math during my first two years of teaching and maybe even a few students learned to love math (although there’s no data to support that claim.)  However, that experience taught me that there is so much more to a quality educational experience than learning subject content matter.  I have spent the last 13 years at Collegiate trying to give our scholars everything they need to thrive at school and in life; how to fall in love with the transformational process of learning, leading, and growing in a school setting and the joy that comes from being in an environment of students and adults that are passionate about educational opportunity.  It is also important that CSM teachers and staff know that our scholars need more than just content-specific instruction; our scholars need adults who are pouring into their lives emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.  

Many educators, myself included, become teachers because they see value in building authentic and genuine relationships with students. I desire to create a working environment and school culture that fosters relationship building and gives our students the opportunity to be seen and known while they are at school.

” I have spent the last 13 years at Collegiate trying to give our scholars everything they need to thrive at school and in life; how to fall in love with the transformational process of learning, leading, and growing in a school setting and the joy that comes from being in an environment of students and adults that are passionate about educational opportunity. ” -McKenzie Cohen, Head of School at Collegiate School of Memphis

What do you find special about your work and the students you’ve worked with in Memphis? 

There is a lot that I find special about working with students, but I suppose what stands out is watching my scholars grow in their confidence, leadership, and maturity through middle and high school.  In the last few years, I have really seen our upper-class students step into leadership initiatives and propose ways to make CSM a better learning experience for themselves and their classmates.  To see students use their voices to ask for a change in their high school gives me hope that they will be prepared to take on leadership roles in their community and on their college campuses.

What do you think the impact is of a high-quality teacher in Memphis? 

High-quality teachers in Memphis give students more than just curriculum and instruction knowledge and skills.  The best teachers are teachers who pour into the school community and build up the entire environment in a school so that all students are able to thrive in the classroom and outside of the classroom.  When a student graduates from CSM, they remember their teachers.  They remember how their teachers made them feel and how their teachers brought academic content to life and pushed them to grow and learn together; how their teachers cared about their academic success and their life. 

What do you enjoy most about Collegiate? 

At Collegiate, I most enjoy that students and adults get to come to a school building every day where they are free to work, learn, grow, and serve together.  I enjoy that the educators at CSM who want to stay in education for their entire careers have a space to do that here at CSM.  I enjoy that students with a variety of strengths, and needs can come to Collegiate and find a school setting that is right for them – where they are safe and known and valued for who they are.

If you had to give one piece of advice to an educator starting a career in Memphis, what would it be? 

Memphis needs great people to step up and step into classrooms.  It’s not a high-profile career – it’s a humble career for folks who are committed to shepherding young people through the difficult and transformative teenage years of their lives. As a new educator, be open to the idea that you have a lot to learn and that you may not yet be the best teacher you can be.  And that’s okay. Your second semester in the classroom will be better than your first semester, and by your second year in the classroom, you’ll be on your way to greatness. You will learn a lot about yourself in the process of learning how to become a better teacher.  

Despite the challenges, what encourages you to keep pursuing education? 

There are a lot of challenges in education, especially right now in the middle of the pandemic, but the need continues.  Memphis children need great teachers and great schools.  They need somewhere to go every day that is safe and fun and where they are free to learn and to be kids.  I will continue to pursue education as long as the need exists.

Just for fun, tell us a couple of places your family loves to spend time in Memphis- and maybe your favorite restaurant? 

My family is myself, my husband, and my two kids and we love going to Crosstown Concourse, the Children’s Museum, the Memphis Zoo, and Sweet Noshings. 

Learn more about McKenzie Cohen and her work at Collegiate School of Memphis. 

Teachers play an integral role in creating the leaders of tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about teaching opportunities in the 901, check out Teach901Memphis Teacher Residency, and Teach For America-Memphis.

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