From Tanks to Teaching: Lessons in Leadership

Daris McInnis

In early June 2013, Daris McInnis embarked on the 15-hour drive from Fort Lee, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, to begin his Education Pioneers Fellowship—still dressed in military fatigues and combat boots. Only three days after separating as an active duty logistics officer McInnis joined EP’s first New Orleans Graduate School Fellowship cohort. There, he worked with Crescent City Schools’ Chief Operating Officer to launch the Paul Habans Charter School.

The 24-hour career change was a significant transition. “I not only had to learn how to not be a soldier, but I also had to ‘relearn’ how to be a civilian,” said McInnis. “Fortunately, the education sector is very diverse with intelligent, empathetic people who embrace others from all backgrounds.”

A self-proclaimed “Army brat,” McInnis grew up northwest of Detroit in Flint, Michigan. His mother raised him while working a full-time job and finishing high school; his father joined the Army in 1990 as a tanker (and retired in 2013 as Chief of Military Pay).

With no military experience, McInnis joined the Army as a Second Lieutenant in 2008 and embarked on an unparalleled leadership challenge. “I had zero years in the Army but all this responsibility,” said McInnis. “I was in charge of 88 people—cooks, chaplains assistants, medics, the fuel dispensary. I had to assume a leadership role over many people while I could barely march in formation. There’s no blueprint or handbook to teach you how to be a leader in that type of situation,” he added. “You just have to jump.”

Five years later, McInnis sought a different leadership challenge, and one that would impact the lives of students. McInnis found the support he needed through Education Pioneers.

"EP was the perfect bridge,” said McInnis. “EP gave me the hands-on experience inside of a school for the first time in my life. I was also provided the opportunity to pick the brains of education powerhouses throughout New Orleans to learn more about the achievement gap, pedagogical practices, and how to bring my skills into the education space.”

Though it took him a little while to adjust to civilian life – “I’m sure [EP Alumna and program consultant] Cate Swinburn will tell anyone that it took the entire summer to get me to stop calling her ‘ma’am!” he said – now, McInnis is exactly where he wants to be.

Post-Fellowship, McInnis stayed in education and is currently a pre-K resident teacher at Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

When asked which leadership position was more challenging—being a Second Lieutenant or a teacher—McInnis answered without hesitation. “Pre-K!” he laughed.

“In the military, it’s a structured, disciplined environment with black and white guidelines. Being in the classroom is the complete opposite. You must be creative and adjust your teaching style to serve each student individually. There is no room for rigidity," he said. “Students have their own personalities, their own needs, own level of comfort. It’s extremely challenging. My job as a commissioned officer in the Army was mission-focused with very specific orders to follow. But my students are not soldiers, and instead of passing on orders, I’m figuring out new ways with my lead teacher to help students learn. I absolutely love what I do.”

For McInnis, his Fellowship experience continues to drive his commitment to quality leadership both inside and outside the classroom.

“Having great teachers in a school is fantastic, but there is also an inherent need for talent outside the classroom to help create a solid academic experience for students,” he explained. “The EP Fellowship provides opportunities to help ensure that every child has the opportunity for high-quality education that you may not receive elsewhere. If you have a passion for education and the talent and skills to positively impact an organization, what are you waiting for?”


Elizabeth Gale is the marketing and communications intern for Education Pioneers. She amplifies the organization’s mission to transform education leadership and management by publishing education news, writing original content, and managing social media accounts (@edpioneers). Elizabeth is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley studying Rhetoric and American Studies, with a concentration in Education Policy. She believes that indiscriminate access to outstanding education can change the world.


You go Darius! What a fine intelligent Man you have grown up to be! Continue to thrive and teach and encourage our youth to do the same.
Just goes to show what a little self motivation and determination will truly do in ones favor.

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