How one principal is motivating his school to keep doing better
“I can’t tell what day it is,” Principal Felipe Jackson reflected back in March 2020. The pandemic had just begun. He was still in front of his computer long after a normal school day would have ended. Jackson, a New Leaders alum, is the principal at Bear Creek Middle School in Fulton, Georgia. The story of his leadership, which we shared as an inaugural blog post, inspired hundreds of educators across the country.
“We have to rely on each other,” he told his teachers, students, and families at the time. “Given the state of our nation, we are all we have. We will get through this ordeal together.”
We caught up with Jackson this summer to see how Bear Creek navigated the pandemic, first as an all-virtual model and later as a hybrid. We asked him how he changed as a leader and how he and his team are planning for another unprecedented school year.
“I’ve become more of a leader,” he shared over Zoom. “In the bravery aspect and in being transparent about how I feel.” His top five leadership actions (below) carry him through the demands of this historic time. Then, like now, he continues to inspire.
Create an opportunity culture
With one quarter of his students enrolled in-person and the rest learning online, Jackson encouraged his staff to use small class sizes as an opportunity to work on their craft. Teachers redid lesson plans and targeted individual learning needs. He visited classrooms and offered feedback. “A lot of times it’s the distractions that prevent us from accomplishing what we want to accomplish,” he adds. “I tried to eliminate all the noise and motivate everyone to stay focused on learning.” Challenges get renamed as opportunities to take charge, to get better. In time, the opportunity atmosphere inside the school compelled more students to return in-person.
Do something different
Jackson and his team are determined to shift the way instruction is delivered at the secondary level. After looking at their achievement data, with 50 percent of the student population not meeting learning targets and a widening achievement gap as a result of COVID-19, teachers plan to integrate small group instruction into the classroom in addition to a standard intervention block. The goal is to provide more targeted support around specific skills and standards for students who need more support. This is the priority initiative Bear Creek is launching this fall to drive toward the student outcomes at 90-90-90 schools—90% high-poverty, 90% high-performing, and 90% minority-enrollment.
Share leadership with your team
Looking back on last year, Jackson is most thankful for his leadership team. “There were days when I just gave up. Honestly. I used to think that I had to do everything on my own, that it was embarrassing to admit a weakness. But on those days last year, when it felt like every road was closed, I learned to lean on my team and let my vulnerability come out. What I realized is that the more I gave my team opportunities to lead and be a part of the process, the more I knew we were going to be okay.”
Motivate, motivate, motivate
Faced with one crisis after the other last year, Jackson quickly realized the one thing he could control as a leader: the way in which he motivated teachers to teach, students to learn, and parents to stay engaged. “I became the biggest cheerleader every single day.” We will get through this together is a common refrain heard at Bear Creek Middle School along with regular reminders to seek a deeper purpose—why you chose to teach, for example—as a key motivator to keep going. For himself, Jackson learned that modeling high expectations and allowing people to see his vulnerabilities led to more respect, more commitment, more motivation.
Now is the time for urgency, Jackson tells his staff daily. “We don’t have time to play catch up. We don’t have time for excuses. Our kids are going to have to learn how to ride a bike without training wheels, whether we like it or not. We need to put ourselves in the right mindset and prepare ourselves with the strategies and practices that are proven to increase student achievement.” He pauses for a moment and adds: “The truth is our students are resilient. More than we are. Our job is to bring that out in them.”
Jackson’s advice to leaders right now:
You can’t do this on your own. If you don't have a team, develop one. Keep pushing forward, and others will definitely follow.