“It is often said that opportunity comes at the intersection of luck and skill, but I believe you can take luck out of the equation if you build a network of people you can rely on throughout your life to support you no matter what comes.”
Alumnus James Lane (B.Mus. 1999, M.A.T. 2000) has had an impressive career in education. He has worked as a middle school band teacher, school administrator, district and state superintendent, and in the Biden-Harris administration as Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. Most recently, Lane was appointed CEO of Phi Delta Kappa International and began his tenure on July 17, 2023.
We caught up with Lane to discuss his time at UNC, his career since then, and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role at PDK International.
UNC Music: What was your experience as an undergraduate and MAT student at UNC like?
Dr. James Lane: I truly had an amazing experience at Carolina as a music major and as a member of the trumpet studio, the wind ensemble and concert band, the jazz band and combos, the symphony orchestra, and the marching band. I joined the music department the same year as Mr. [Jeffrey] Fuchs and tried to keep up with him as much as possible. Mr. Fuchs taught me how to be a leader and the band program helped to develop my abilities to support and guide others toward a common goal and shared vision. I also credit Dr. [James] Hile and Mr. [Jim] Ketch with a lot of the success I’ve had. Dr. Hile taught me how to have passion for my work and to bring intensity to every moment. Mr. Ketch taught me how to expect no less than my best every time I performed. I still use those skills as I prepare for my work experiences every day.
I played live music almost every night of the week I could on Franklin St. when I was a student and Mr. Ketch would give me a hard time for my chops being tired in lessons sometimes. I was too embarrassed at the time to tell him that I had to play live music each night to be able to afford my living expenses during school, but I used that push he gave me to work even harder every day (and eventually convinced him to let me have my lessons in the afternoon). My best friends, even today, are the very same people from my band experiences. I think the time I was there, in the late 90’s, was special in a lot of ways from going to Dean Smith’s last games, Mack Brown’s first tenure as coach, amazing bowl games and Final Four experiences, the jazz band Europe trip. The bonds we formed have lasted a lifetime and I’m so thankful I had that experience.
Following my time as an undergrad, I continued my studies at UNC as an MAT student and credit that experience with a lot of the success I’ve had in my career. I’ll never forget Dr. Gerry Unks’ class. He opened my mind to all the possibilities that could come as an educator and taught me to think outside the box about what we should expect from our schools and how we should structure our classrooms with students at the center. I never got to thank him for the profound impact he had on me in a mere semester experience, but I think about him often and know he is missed by so many.
“UNC was the place where I got to see the world from new perspectives and that helped give me the confidence to lead in any role or to enter any room and feel like l belonged even though I was a kid from a small town in Kentucky.”
UNC Music: What has been your career path to this latest role?
JL: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of really awesome experiences in my career. Prior to serving in my current as the CEO of PDK International and Educators Rising, I had the honor of serving in the Biden-Harris Administration as the Acting Assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and as Senior Advisor to Secretary Miguel Cardona. In this role, I led the administration’s work in K-12 education and led numerous facets of the US Department of Education such as ESSA Implementation (e.g. Title I, Assessment and Accountability), the American Rescue Plan (e.g. ESSER), and helped to launch the Secretary’s Raise the Bar initiative.
Before my time in Washington, I served as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Virginia during the term of Governor Ralph Northam. I have also been a district superintendent in Chesterfield, Goochland, and Middlesex Counties in Virginia. Other previous roles have included positions as Assistant Superintendent, Principal, and Assistant Principal in various school districts. But, the position I’m most proud of is the time I spent as a band teacher (band director) in Durham, NC, at Rogers-Herr Year-Round Middle School.
UNC Music: How did you get involved with PDK International?
JL: When I made the decision to leave the Biden-Harris administration, I knew I wanted to move into non-profit leadership, but I really wanted to work somewhere that focused on both students and teachers and there are only a handful of national non-profits that work directly with both students and teachers. PDK International is unique in that sense.
PDK is an organization with several different major projects. We certainly lead the membership organization from our namesake, Phi Delta Kappa, but also we run Pi Lambda Theta, the highly regarded Kappan Magazine, the PDK Poll on the Public’s Attitudes on Public Education, and our biggest program is Educators Rising. I’m thankful that the Board of PDK International selected me and look forward to leading the organization into the future.
UNC Music: How did UNC help prepare you for this new role?
JL: UNC was essential to my preparation from the leadership skills I learned in band to the best practices in education that I learned in my MAT. More than anything, though, UNC was the place where I got to see the world from new perspectives and that helped give me the confidence to lead in any role or to enter any room and feel like l belonged even though I was a kid from a small town in Kentucky.
Carolina instilled in me a focus on ensuring that everything I did was at a standard of excellence, and I’ve carried that everywhere I’ve gone. UNC also gave me great connections to many awesome people. I can’t tell you how many times I walked into the White House or the US Department of Education and met a new person who also went to UNC at some point. It gives you that instant connection and the Tar Heel pride runs strong.
UNC Music: What are you most excited about in this new role?
JL: Educators Rising is the main reason I came to PDK and is a program focused on building “Grow-Your-Own” teacher programs in 37 states. We work with high school students to put them on the path to become teachers and educators through a full Career and Technical Education curriculum, student membership chapters, conferences, competitions, and a diverse community of over 20,000 teacher candidates. Our whole focus at PDK is on eliminating the teacher shortage and ensuring we have a diverse and thriving teaching profession.
Learn more about this unique program at EducatorsRising.org.
UNC Music: What advice would you give to current UNC Music students?
JL: Enjoy your time at Carolina!! I can remember the feeling of worrying about schoolwork, whether I was practicing enough, or whether I was prepared for an upcoming test, but I can honestly say as I reflect back nearly 25 years later, that the relationships I formed and the good times I had with my friends, especially in bands, are the memories I think about most from that time. I know you will work hard and do well in school or you wouldn’t be at UNC, but you will not be able to replicate this experience later in your life and you’ll never have the opportunity to explore any possibility for your life in the same way again.
“Cherish this time. The world of work is as much about meeting people and networking as it is your skill in your craft. Make sure you take the time to develop your people skills as much as you develop your technical skills in whatever you want to do.”
It is often said that opportunity comes at the intersection of luck and skill, but I believe you can take luck out of the equation if you build a network of people you can rely on throughout your life to support you no matter what comes. I’ve certainly been lucky to have the opportunities I’ve had, but I got there because I took the time to prepare for excellence every day (much like you would for a recital) and I had people looking out for me who truly had my back and would vouch for me. So when the lucky opportunity came I knew I could win the interview with my knowledge and experiences, but I knew I’d win the job with my references, and at the beginning of my career that was almost always someone I met at UNC.