During halftime of Dalton High School’s first football game of the season, Jeff McKinney was announced as this year’s Tom Jones Educator of the Year. McKinney is the athletic director at Dalton High School, where he has spent more than two decades of his career.
The Tom Jones Educator of the Year Award recognizes educators in Dalton Public Schools who have made significant contributions in the education of children in Dalton and who symbolize excellence in teaching. Candidates are chosen based on their relationship with students, accomplishments, relationships with parents and their relationship with the community.
McKinney’s nominator said that his work behind the scenes to support students is what makes him stand out as an award-winner.
“Being an athletic director is often a thankless job,” the nominator said. “Jeff’s efforts on and off the fields and courts are often unseen and unnoticed. Without his tireless efforts, DHS Athletics would not be what it is today. His devotion and support of coaches and athletes is unparalleled and unwavering.”
Born in Mississippi, McKinney said he grew up in a poor family. He didn’t always know he wanted to be a teacher, but saw education as a path to make a better life for himself and his family.
“I grew up extremely poor in Mississippi,” McKinney said. “I had no idea what I wanted to be. School to me was a place to get free lunch and play sports. Fortunately, my mother knew the importance of making good grades and she instilled a strong work-ethic in me.”
After graduating from high school, McKinney attended a local junior college on an ACT and basketball scholarship where he received an associate’s degree in Engineering. Eventually, he changed his major to accounting, but quickly realized the lack of interpersonal interactions made that the wrong career path for him. His advisor suggested that he try teaching, and began his long career in education.
“Although this is my career, I feel like I am still in school,” McKinney said. “I love being around the children, teachers, parents and community. I consider myself a life-long student, because education has been what I have believed in my entire life.”
McKinney started at Dalton High School in 2000 as a math teacher and girls basketball coach. For McKinney, everything starts with the relationships you build with students.
“I cared about all my students,” McKinney said. “I truly believed the main ingredient to being successful in the classroom was building relationships and trust with my students. No student was overlooked in my classroom.”
He said the relationships built during his early years as a math teacher are the foundations his career is built on.
“The most rewarding moments from the classroom is now being able to see former students being successful in the real world,” McKinney said. “I now have the privilege of working side by side with one of my former students who now shares a love for math in the classroom like I did. She is one of the best math teachers at Dalton High School (Maria Mora). She consistently shares with me and her students the impact that I had on her learning. Hearing her talk to her students about how I always explained what we were doing in class, and ensuring they are all understood reminds me of the impact I had as a math teacher. Another one of my students, Meral Henton, now serves as a math instructional coach. Talking with her and having her share how much she loved our geometry class is another reminder of the relationships I developed in a content that was hard to teach.”
Looking back on his career, McKinney sees these relationships with not just students, but also parents, colleagues and community members, as the common thread of his work. He said if you can build relationships with others, you can overcome any difficult situation.
“Over the years, I have learned if you are direct and honest, everything is easier to work through,” McKinney said. “We are fortunate to have such a close-knit community so I have been blessed to watch our kids grow from Little Cats to contributing adults. I enjoy running into parents who are eager to share their children’s successes as well as seek out advice for potential struggles their children may be experiencing. It has taken years to build the level of trust I have built with our parents and families and I am blessed to be a vital part of their villages.”
McKinney said he feels incredibly lucky to be able to work in a community like Dalton, Georgia. He sees Dalton as a truly special and unique place.
“We are blessed to live in a community and work for a school board that takes so much pride in supporting and investing in our children,” McKinney said. “It doesn’t matter what type of function we are having – our community always shows up. When I meet with other athletic directors from other school systems, many of them ask how we consistently get our community to come and support our programs. I always share with them that Dalton is a very unique community. The support is special. What a gift to serve and be a part of this school and this outstanding community. I am so blessed.”
As the winner of this year’s Tom Jones Award, McKinney said he hopes he can leave a similar legacy when he eventually leaves Dalton Public Schools.
“When the time comes for me to leave, I want to be known in Dalton Public Schools as someone who truly cared and loved our students,” McKinney said. “Someone who always placed the best interest of others first. Someone who is truly a servant leader. Tom Jones shared that same servant heart. That is my goal. That is why I come to work every day and spend hours after school working for our students. I am committed to learning, growing, and continuing to make our school and our community the best it can be! GO BIG RED!”
This year’s finalists included Dr. Barbara Brayford, The Dalton Academy; Shena Flowers, Brookwood School; Lynda Hernandez, The Dalton Academy; Rebecca Moore, City Park School; and Paige Watts, The Dalton Academy.
The award is named in memory of Tom Jones, a prominent Dalton businessman who served on the Dalton Board of Education for 26 years and was chairman from 1967 to 1986. The award was started in 1987. Jones, who was the co-founder of J+J Flooring Group, was a native of Dalton and a product of Dalton Public Schools.