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Leigh Kokenes ’91 on Being Named National School Psychologist of the Year

Leigh Kokenes in front of a classroom

The National Association of School Psychologists has named Leigh Kokenes ’91 its 2019 School Psychologist of the Year. She works with the Wake County Public School System and provides comprehensive school psychological services for K-8 students at Lynn Road Elementary School and West Millbrook Middle School.

After earning her undergraduate degree in middle grades education from the NC State College of Education, she completed graduate work in Special Education with Advanced Study in Early Intervention at Penn State University and graduate work in school psychology at California State University, Long Beach.

In the Q&A below, Kokenes talks about why she chose education and what the national recognition means to her.

Why I Chose Education: My education in Wilson, North Carolina, included teachers who cared that I grew in school and who showed me a love of learning. Like many people, my middle school years were awkward and it was a time when my confidence was low. I had quite a few teachers who pointed me in the right direction in high school. In college when I was choosing my field, it seemed like a good fit to choose middle school education because I could relate to this being a difficult time for many students.

Why I Have Stayed in Education: I returned to school for a master’s degree in special education and, ultimately, landed in school psychology when I lived in California. The field of education is a great profession because there are continued opportunities to learn, and there are many different roads to take in terms of positions and areas of interest. The best part for me is that each day at work is a chance to make a difference in a child’s life. That is incredible.

What Being Named National School Psychologist of the Year Means to Me: It is very significant to me because I was chosen for the award based on my work and was chosen by my school psychology colleagues. Those who chose me for this award understand the obstacles our profession is facing with mounting mental health needs in schools, a nationwide and statewide shortage of school psychologists, and reduced funding for specialized instructional support staff. The award represents the very best of what teaming within the field of school psychology can accomplish and is the result of true grassroots advocacy during a very difficult time in our field. . . . School psychology has a relatively small voice in North Carolina in the field of education. We are small but determined.

My Advice to Those Entering the Field of Education: People in education are lifelong learners and are caring and compassionate individuals. Be creative with your career and don’t limit yourself. Be active in your professional association and stay updated on what is going on in your profession, especially with public policy at the local, state and federal level.  Self-reflection and professional development throughout your career are two very important aspects of my career that have led me to have great satisfaction with my career despite this being a very difficult time to be in this field. It is also a very exciting time because motivated and caring individuals I work with have had to be creative problem-solvers.