“We Will Get Through This Ordeal Together." How One Principal is Motivating His School to Stay Connected

“I can’t tell what day it is,” Principal Felipe Jackson reflects. Learn how this New Leaders alum is leading through crisis and motivating his school to get through the pandemic together.
New Leaders school principal smiling in car wearing hat
4/20/20
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While schools are now closed in Georgia through the end of the school year, Jackson has not stopped leading. His faculty meets regularly in online professional learning communities. His instructional leadership team meets via Microsoft Teams. Students engage in interactive lessons and participate in a virtual spirit week. The doors to Bear Creek Middle School may not be open, but Jackson is redefining what community means.

Jackson is used to thinking fast. In early March, well before national school closures were the norm, a staff member contracted the coronavirus. This was a first for Fulton County. Jackson had to navigate a soft lockdown, parent outreach, and early dismissal with 34 buses at once. Today, Jackson is still modeling that same calm resolve as he actively – and intentionally – preserves a sense of community among students, families, and staff. “School is not over,” he advises. “It’s just in another form.”

Listen as he shares his reflections on how he engages with his school community, how he communicates with every stakeholder, and how he makes himself visible and accessible in an effort to promote a feeling of connectedness.

Jackson, like educators and leaders across the country, is guiding his school community through an unprecedented time. He is redefining school closures as motivation – the opportunity for his faculty to get better together and increase their engagement with students and families. Students’ curiosity and their capacity to learn, he reminds his team, have not changed.  

As for his own motivation, Jackson shares how this time has changed him as well. “My eyes were opened when I was working the food distribution line. Once I saw the food our families were receiving, it changed my whole perspective. I will do whatever it takes to meet the needs of my students. That is the bottom line… Because you don’t see what you need to see unless you are on the front line.”

Jackson with the Bear Creek Middle School Governance Council.
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Felipe Jackson

Felipe Jackson

Felipe Jackson is the principal of Bear Creek Middle School in Fulton County, Georgia. A native of Washington D.C., Jackson has 10 years of experience leading schools in Fulton County and Baltimore City. He is a graduate of New Leaders’ Aspiring Principals program. He believes that schools are the centerpiece of the community.

Felipe Jackson

Felipe Jackson

Felipe Jackson

Felipe Jackson

Transcript

From New Leaders, this is our Leadership Changes Everything series. We're elevating leader voices from across the country to support educators and leaders as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic together. Today, we hear from Felipe Jackson, principal of Bear Creek Middle School in Fulton County, Georgia, as he shares with us how he helps his team to preserve community during these very challenging times.

Once they made the announcement that school will close permanently for us, I thought to myself, like you know what? This is what leaders do by staying calm and leading the charge, but more importantly, communicating to all stakeholders.

I sent another email blast and call out, explaining the findings by the health department. I outlined it just based on the facts. Then I sent that letter out so that way parents and all of our stakeholders knew that we would be with them through this ordeal. That support was reassuring for our school community.

How have you worked to stay in communication with your staff since your school was closed and then the district closed all the schools. How have you been navigating this space virtually?

I was able to use the templates and resources that were provided to me from New Leaders for the school. I used them. I was actually able to organize my day and organize my daily admin team meetings, weekly instructional leadership team meetings, and weekly faculty meetings. I will post the agenda on Microsoft Teams and facilitate these meetings. As a result, we were able to keep ourselves organized and set our weekly outcomes and goals for the week based on the expectations from the district.

I also communicated the expectation with our staff that school is not over. It's in another form, virtually. I communicated the roles and responsibilities, meeting schedules, and instructions to our staff.

How have teams been responding to that? Have they been on board with it?

Yes, our school community has been receptive and supportive. I send out weekly messages, reinforcing our purpose and encouraging our staff to stay engaged with students. Teachers have facilitated grade level professional learning communities (PLCs) and content meeting PLCs as well. They have just been supporting each other with technology. It took the lift off the instructional coaches. Teachers were more engaged in these PLCs and meetings and supporting each other versus a typical once a week of letting the instructional coach facilitate the meeting and then come back the next week to follow up.

At this point, teachers are hosting live sessions with students and having conferences with parents. Teachers are also hosting their office hours to provide additional support. I just made myself available and responsive to parents. I'm visible on the front line during food and device pickup. Our parents are reassured because I've made myself accessible by cell phone and email. I'm actually still at school.

Lastly, how has this pandemic and your response made you think differently about community? What might you do differently for the future?

It made me think about how important it is streamlining all communication from the district to the staff, to the parents, and to make sure that you have clear roles and expectations for all staff members. But it's also that I take the lead and be the face of our school community. We had a virtual spirit week, and I got up Monday knowing that I needed to make sure that I participated every single day, reading and posting. I mean, I'm not a big social media person but what that did was it encouraged and motivated other staff members to get involved.

Then I sent messages out, especially when they made the decision that all Georgia schools were going to be closed until the end of the year. First thing this morning, I sent a message to remind them that we will use this time as an opportunity to get better as teachers. We will use this time as an opportunity to increase our engagement with our students and parents. And we will use this time to close the achievement gap, and how important it is for our students in our school community to stay engaged because that gap is so wide.

I get up each morning and I look at the silver lining, knowing that whatever it is I'm doing, I'm supporting our school community. It's that sense of appreciation that I'm getting, and that they are getting from me. My eyes were opened when I was working the food distribution line. Once I saw what the food our families were receiving, it just changed my whole perspective on, I will do whatever it takes to meet the needs of our school. That's the bottom line.

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