When Naches Trail Elementary School principal Sean McKenzie talks to his students and staff about overcoming adversity, he speaks from a position of authority.
It’s fair to say McKenzie knows a bit about the subject.
You’d never guess it from speaking with him, but McKenzie was actually born and raised in England. He grew up in a town called Ipswich, located about 80 miles from London, with his American serviceman father, his English mother, and his two siblings.
Life was pretty good for young McKenzie. He was a typical English kid who loved soccer and was popular at school.
That all changed in 1976, when McKenzie’s father was transferred to the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. To call the move to North Dakota a culture shock for 12-year-old McKenzie would be a massive understatement.
“I went from wearing bell-bottoms, silk floral shirts, hair down to my shoulders and platform shoes to a town — and I wasn’t on the Air Force base, I was in the city of Minot — where everyone was wearing Toughskins and Wrangler jeans with crew cuts. They thought I was a girl the first day of school,” McKenizie said.
That first day of school kicked off a rough year in McKenzie’s life. Soccer, his passion back in England, hadn’t yet caught on in rural North Dakota. And his thick English accent and flair for fashion didn’t exactly win him any friends, either.
“It was the most miserable year of my life,” he said.
An excellent student and an avid reader, McKenzie spent much of his time studying in his room.
“We grew up poor, but the best gift my parents ever got me was the Encyclopedia Americana,” he said. “They ordered a set and we just lived with those. We read them, we studied the maps. I love non-fiction and I love learning about the world.”
McKenzie’s horrible year was capped off when his parents got divorced and he moved with his mother and younger siblings to Kent, Washington.
Things started to turn around when he arrived in Washington. First, his new school had a soccer team, and when McKenzie was in junior high he was good enough to make it onto the varsity soccer squad. He also continued to excel at school, and he finally began to make friends and settle in to his new life in America.
After high school, McKenzie made the move to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. He wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with his life, but he was smart and curious and he was pretty sure he’d figure it all out.
He hadn’t yet decided to become an educator, but it was during his UW years that he realized he was on this earth to help people in one way or another. He took a career test that told him he was meant to be a social worker, and in his spare time he worked as a peer counselor.
With a sociology degree in hand, 22-year-old McKenzie left the university with high hopes for his future. Then, just five days after graduation, he was involved in a horrific scooter accident that left him in and out of a coma for two days.
He remained in the hospital for three weeks, and then he began the arduous task of getting back to normal.
“It left me with terrible balance and I slurred my words, but my brain healed,” McKenzie said of the crash.
It was a bad time, to say the least. In addition to healing from a traumatic brain injury, McKenzie was also mourning the death of his father, who passed away a year earlier.
McKenzie said the accident fundamentally changed his life. It left him angry and unsure about his future. He worked five jobs in two years, including a stint on a crab boat in the Bering Sea. His feet didn’t touch land for four months, even when his boat went up in flames while out at sea.
“It was incredibly tough,” McKenzie said of the crabbing job. “There were some moments of real fear. My boat caught fire and I had to transfer boats in the middle of the night in the middle of the Bering Sea.”
It was during those two years of working odd jobs that McKenzie discovered two things: First, he no longer wanted to go through life feeling angry. And second, he was going to pursue a career doing something that he loved, which was working with and helping children.
Early in his life, McKenzie developed a guiding belief that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“After surviving that and coming out of that anger, I felt like this is a pretty wonderful world,” he said.
With that, McKenzie headed back to school to become an elementary school teacher. After graduation he took a job in Renton School District, where he taught for 10 years.
There was no doubt that he’d found his calling in life. He loved being in the classroom, and as the years went by his natural leadership traits began to draw him toward the idea of becoming a principal.
“I always felt I had a responsibility to make the world better,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to work with elementary school children. I believe in the fundamental potential in every child, and as a teacher I viewed it as my responsibility to unlock that potential.”
He eventually went back to school one more time to get his administration credentials. His first taste of administrative work was as an assistant principal at a middle school in Maple Valley. After three years, he felt he was ready to lead his own school.
McKenzie was looking for jobs when he saw an opening for principal at Camas Prairie Elementary. He applied and was hired, which kicked off his career in the Bethel School District.
He spent 10 years at Camas, and he absolutely loved the job.
“The work I did at Camas and the work I’m doing (at Naches Trail) is shifting us to a culture of universal achievement, a sense that every kid can be prepared for a postsecondary experience,” he said. “No excuses, no limits. That’s our mantra.”
McKenzie became principal at Naches Trail five years ago, and he continues to have a passion for leading students and teachers.
“When I need to get energized and get a break from the management side of things, I get into the classrooms and see the joy of learning,” he said. “Elementary kids are built to learn. They’re humans programed to learn, and just seeing my quality teachers leading, it’s pretty special.”
Outside of school, McKenzie has been a dedicated father to his son and daughter, who are both finishing up college in Seattle.
“They’ve been my central focus of my life. When I wasn’t working I was with my kids. So now I’m going through empty nest syndrome,” he said with a chuckle.
McKenzie has certainly overcome his share of adversity, but all of those experiences have helped shape him into the man he is today.
“As I look back, I feel I’m having a wonderful life,” he said.