There have been moments since Henderson County Schools started classes this year that Katie Kirkwood has experienced a dream-like self-awareness when working in her new office.
She’ll realize that she’s in the principal’s office, and it’s the very same office the principal in her elementary school used when she was growing up.
Not that long ago, she was a student at Bend Gate Elementary School, and now she’s the person in charge there.
Back then she was a tearful first grader, who battled anxiety about going to school. She just wanted to go back home, and she wanted her mom.
But the daughter of local educators Bruce and Cynthia Farris found a kind face and soothing voice meeting her at the front door on school days, coaxing her inside. It was the school custodian, the late Gary Richmond, and it instilled in Kirkwood that it really does take a village — everyone in the school environment — to educate children.
“He made an impact on me,” Kirkwood said. “We can all make such a difference.”
And there were others at her school who also went well beyond the call, including teacher Martha Denton. “She was so patient with me,” the new principal said.
As a child, she saw many role models for educating children in her very own home. Not only were her parents fully immersed in the educational culture of Henderson County, so were other family members.
“We were always ‘talking school,’” Kirkwood said, noting that after classroom hours there were many ballgames and school activities that kept work and home life intertwined.
“Both of my parents were so influential,” she added, describing how they would often bring home students who needed a mentor or a meal. “I grew up with all of that.”
Even with all that, she hadn’t really thought about becoming a principal, let alone at the school where her picture with a championship basketball team is still in the trophy case and the lunch line looks the very same as it did in the early 1990s.
When it was time to do her student teaching at the end of her college career at Murray State University, she wasn’t allowed serve at her old school, so she went to Spottsville Elementary, and there she said she found more examples of great teachers and a spirit of unity and family.
“In my head I thought I would be at Spottsville forever,” she said.
But after 12 years in the classroom, Kirkwood said, she felt like she needed a new challenge and set her sights on an open assistant principal position at her old school.
And now she’s been sent to the principal’s office.
Memories of her own days in elementary school, including the tears and the many people who helped her, are one reason she has a sensitive spot for kids today who are struggling with many issues.
“I can tell them about my struggles and about how I never thought I could be here,” Kirkwood said, “and how now I am choosing to go to school every day. I am meant to be here.”
She knows it’s not without challenges.
Mental health is at the top of the list. Kirkwood said children come to school with many worries—including homelessness, parents that are in trouble and lack of resources to meet basic human needs—that sometimes cause instruction to take a back seat.
Often, they’re angry, confused and scared, which comes out through behavior issues.
“If we haven’t met basic needs,” she said, “we can’t get any farther.”
But she said she knows that a caring, energized staff, good leadership, tidbits of wisdom from those who have covered this same ground and community partnerships geared toward solving problems will serve their school family well.
“I want this to be a place that everybody loves and wants to come to, of academic excellence,” Kirkwood said. “I want our staff to know I care about them, and this is not just a job to me.”