Caring & Collaboration: The Keys to Educational Leadership

Marcus Jackson, Ed.D., didn’t want to be a principal. “I just wanted to teach and coach basketball,” Jackson says. Yet a passion for helping children and a natural proclivity for leadership led Jackson into school administration. He’s served as an elementary school principal, a middle school principal and is currently completing his first year as principal of Carver School of Health, Sciences and Research, a high school in Atlanta.

Jackson’s knack for educational leadership is clear in his interactions with his students and his teachers, and his students and schools show consistent improvements in academic achievement. We talked to Jackson, author of the book “Because My Teacher Said I Can,” to learn more about his success as an educational leader.

Your bachelor’s degree is in recreational management. How did you get into educational leadership?

I discovered my passion for helping kids while working as a community coordinator with the City of Atlanta. I designed and coordinated programs for youth at risk and was one of the youth football coaches at our community center. I was surprised when I learned that my quarterback, a smart second-grader, had all Fs on his report card. So I asked his mom if it would OK for me to go talk to his teacher.

I will never forget that teacher or that conference. She asked if I knew the Whitney Houston song, “The Greatest Love of All,” the verse that says, “I believe the children are our future.” She said, “If that’s the case, we’re going to need a backup plan because these children will not amount to anything. The girls will be pregnant and on welfare before they leave high school, and the boys will be in jail before they even enter high school.”

I was blown away. I couldn’t sleep for days. And I began my teaching certification two months later. When I started teaching, one of my principals noticed some leadership qualities in me. I took her advice and got into leadership.

A leader needs to move people to action. What’s your approach to getting people to share your vision and share in the work?

I always involve teachers in the process. Whenever I have a new initiative to implement, the first thing I do is bring it to my administrative team, which consists of myself, my assistant principal, my counselor, my graduation coach and my instructional coaches. We sit down, talk about the issues and the vision and develop a framework for action.

Once we have a framework, I bring it to my leadership team, which consists of my administrative team and my lead teachers. We look at the framework we’ve designed and have our teachers dissect it. Then we use those insights to create a finished plan of action.

By the time I present that plan to the whole teaching team, they’ve already heard about it and know what’s happening and why because the lead teachers have talked about it. So when I bring it to the group, it’s a We thing as opposed to a Dr. Jackson thing.

Building relationships – with your students, with your teachers – is very important to you. Talk about that aspect of your leadership.

At the beginning of the year, I do something that’s pretty unique: I have individual conferences with each of my teachers. Before I start talking about data or goals or vision, I tell them my educational story and what’s going on with me. I ask them about themselves.

This is where we connect as human beings. Understanding what’s going on with my teachers and where they’re coming from allows me to be understanding of their needs. And when it’s time to have a courageous conversation with one of my teachers, they’re a little more understanding because they know I care and they know I’m real.

It’s the same with students. So often we focus on the data. Sometimes you have to step back and realize that you are dealing with kids.

A phrase that comes to mind talking to you is ‘servant leadership.’ Is that a conscious part of your leadership style?

It’s conscious and subconscious now; it’s become automatic. Let me give you an example.

I had a student, a gang member, who’d gotten into a fight and was suspended from school. He wasn’t supposed to be on campus, but he was. I could have called the School Resource Officer and had this kid arrested for trespassing. Instead, I approached him and said, “First of all, I appreciate that you’re not causing any problems, but you’re not supposed to be here at school today. Why are you here? What’s wrong?”

He put his head on my shoulder and said, “Dr. Jackson, I come to school to eat, I’m homeless.” I gave him $8 to go get some food and gave him my card with my cell phone number. I told him to call me if he needed help.

Long story short, I got him connected to community resources, and we were able to find him a home. He ended up being adopted. He calls me now every Sunday, and he’s doing well.

That’s the type of connection I have with my kids.

How do you improve your educational leadership capabilities?

At the beginning of every year, I work on my professional development plan for the year. I attend district, state and national education and leadership conferences. I’m a constant reader of educational leadership magazines, and I’m a part of several principal social media groups where we constantly engage in dialogue about current issues. 

What advice do you have for other educational leaders?

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Ask questions. You cannot do this job by yourself. The mountain is too high to climb. Seek advice from others. Drop your ego soup and take a bite of humble pie.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone. Someone has the answer to every issue you’re having.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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