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USM Alumna Perseveres to Become Superintendent of Mississippi’s Top School District

Mon, 01/23/2023 - 09:47am | By: Van Arnold

Dr. Talia LockFrom grocery store cashier to school superintendent, Talia Lock rode her runaway dreams right through every brick wall that life threw in her path. The nameplate on her office door says: “Dr. Talia Lock,” a title earned from a mixture of unwavering support, good timing, and remarkable grit.

Truthfully, grit might just carry the most weight.

How often does a young woman become a middle-school teacher in her hometown; work her way up to high school principal in the same city, and ultimately achieve the distinction of school district superintendent? And all before the age of 44.

Under Lock’s impressive leadership, the Long Beach School District was named the state’s top district for 2022 by the Mississippi Board of Education. Lock, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) alumna, points out that all five schools in the district are currently A-rated. She calls the rating a direct reflection of the hard work and dedication of the district’s teachers, students, support staff, administrators, and families.

“I was so proud of the gains we had made over one short year after the (COVID-19) pandemic,” said Lock. “In 2020, our hashtag was ‘APARTbutTogether.’ We have just continued to overcome obstacles and difficult circumstances together as one team. But with heart, persistence, and strategic plans put in place, our students were provided with opportunities to succeed. It is evident that they not only met that challenge head-on but rose far and above that challenge.”

Lock began her career journey as a teacher at Central Elementary School in Gulfport, Miss., before taking a position as an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Long Beach Middle School. She served as a Lead Teacher at Long Beach High School from 2014-15 and assistant principal from 2015-February 2018. She was named the school’s principal in March 2018 and became the LBSD superintendent in July 2021.

A young mother’s determination

Lock knows a thing or two about staring down challenges that might ordinarily derail dreams. At the age of 20, while working as a grocery store clerk, she gave birth to twin boys – Aiden Gunter Lock and Dalton Jeffrey Lock. With a high-school education and no appreciative workforce skills, Lock grew determined to rise above her constraining circumstances.

“I was blessed to have a very supportive husband (Jeffrey Lock) who believed in me more than I believed in myself,” said Lock. “At the time I went back to school when my children were 1-year-old, he was a parking lot sweeper. We couldn’t afford daycare with two small children, so he worked late at night and would come home and sleep during the day so that I could go to my night classes, and then he would go to work as soon as I got home. I wanted a better life for them than I could provide at that time. It was very hard a lot of the time, but it made all of us stronger, and we never stopped working hard to achieve what we wanted as a family.”

She added: “I have some of my best memories from that time in my life when we struggled,” she said. “It most certainly made me who I am today, no doubt about it.”

Lock notes that although her husband never had the opportunity to pursue a college degree, he did enjoy a successful career in business/retail management. After 22 years of marriage, Jeffrey Lock passed away from complications due to diabetes in 2020.

Lock is quick to add that the moxie she developed while pursuing a professional career can be directly attributed to her time as a USM student. She described the University as an ideal fit for her and her family.

“I believe it shaped me in many ways” she said. “My bachelor’s degree taught me that graduation from a university is possible, even if you are not a traditional student and you have many odds against you. It taught me how to network with other like-minded people, and it gave me a stronger passion for teaching children, specifically in the area of literature. My Ph.D. taught me that with hard work, I can achieve a goal that I may think is unattainable.”

USM provided mentorship

She came to the Hattiesburg campus as a transfer student from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. After earning an undergraduate degree at USM in elementary education (with endorsements in elementary education 4-8, kindergarten-4, English 7-12 and reading K-12), Lock obtained a master’s degree with an endorsement in special education from William Carey University and secured her Ph.D. in educational leadership at USM.

When asked to recall some fond memories at USM, Lock mentions the relationship with her professors. She credits USM faculty for providing the groundwork to a career in education, singling out the mentorship of Dr. David Lee and Dr. Thelma Roberson.

“They both taught me different things and they are both still my mentors to this day,” said Lock. “I know I can call them if I ever need advice or even just a lunch date. They believed in me and didn’t let me quit the (Ph.D.) program and always made me feel valued. Those are the types of professors that make a difference in people’s lives. They certainly did in mine.”

Lee, associate professor in the School of Education and Human Sciences at USM, gushes with praise for his former student. He notes that her efforts were extraordinary as she always soared beyond expectations in class assignments.

“I am so proud of her accomplishments as a school leader,” he said. “She leads one of the top school systems in the state, and I know first-hand now much her staff respects and supports her. She is an excellent communicator and has the unique ability to motivate and encourage others by her untiring work ethic. Great leadership is becoming rare these days, and it’s leaders like her that gives us hope that our schools are the best they can be. She is an asset to her system and community.”

Talk about bleeding USM black and gold, both of Lock’s sons graduated from her alma mater. Dalton Lock, a Lucky Day scholar during his time at USM, works for the Pepsi Corporation in Texarkana, Texas where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in business administration (from Louisiana State University). Aiden Lock is following in his mother’s footsteps as a special education teacher at Pass Christian (Miss.) Elementary School.

Lock enjoys sharing a poignant story involving Dalton that occurred during her doctoral pursuit at USM. Understanding the strain she faced as a wife, mother, teacher, and graduate student, the compassionate youngster penned a letter to his mom that she keeps close at hand. A portion of the letter reads:

“Dear Mom, your a mother I hope and wish everyone had. If they had you, everyone would be happy. Thanks for all the classes you take and the homework you do. I realize all the stress that comes with that. Also, thanks for always putting me first. I hope to be the man you expect me to be. I just want to simply say thank you and keep it up with the classes. You will be a Dr. Lock in no time.”

Leading by example

The Long Beach School District currently has 242 teachers and a total of 419 employees. As of Dec. 1, the district included 2,920 students. Lock derives immeasurable satisfaction from working closely with the district’s students, faculty, and staff. She classifies “people skills” as one of her primary strengths.

Making the transition from teacher to administrator only bolstered her desire to connect with students. Lock points out that teachers become invested in the individuals who comprise their classrooms – discerning the students’ needs, interests, likes, and dislikes. A move away from that intimate setting requires a concentrated effort to stay in touch.

“Anyone who enters education for the right reasons knows that the students are the joy,” said Lock. “So, in this role, I have made it a priority going to extra-curricular activities to see the students doing what they love, going to every school at least once a week and popping into classrooms, talking to students in the hallways, eating with them in the cafeteria.”

This fall she implemented a Superintendent’s Student Advisory Team to gauge students’ assessment of the district’s efforts. She also started a Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council to ascertain faculty perspectives. “Teachers need to feel that they have a voice in what is going on in their district,” she explained.

Justin Sutton succeeded Lock as principal at Long Beach High School. Sutton first met her while transitioning from his post as assistant principal at Ocean Springs High School. He was impressed from the start.

“She stood out as someone who would be a great leader,” said Sutton. “As I got to work with her during the transition period, I quickly learned that she was someone who cared very much about the City of Long Beach and the Long Beach School District. She stood out as someone who wanted the best for all students and believed in the potential of everyone.”

Sutton notes that his boss possesses leadership qualities that are practically impossible to calculate.

“You can’t quantify her desire to see the Long Beach School District succeed,” he said. “It’s immeasurable. She’s so supportive. You see her at many sporting events, concerts, plays, and more. She makes time for the entire school district. She is concerned about students’ success academically while in high school and in life beyond high school.”

Funny thing, that young girl from a quaint Mississippi coastal town once aspired to be a famous actress or singer. She even harbored the idea of becoming a hairdresser. Instead, she grew to become a role model for young women across South Mississippi as an esteemed and accomplished educator.

Lock likes to reference passages from Randy Pausch’s book, “The Last Lecture” when describing her personal odyssey:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

Brick walls do not scare Dr. Talia Lock. “All of my experiences taught me one major lesson – perseverance,” she said. “It isn’t easy at all. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. But once you’ve done the work, it feels so good, and you have time to stand back for a moment and be proud of yourself.”