A new era of visionary leadership begins

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Let’s start with a quick story, shall we?

This past year I transitioned from an assistant principal at a large metropolitan high school to the executive principal of a small, rural high school. Like any leader, I packed up my bag of tricks, curated over a decade and sharpened in one of the more intense public schools in the state of Tennessee, and set my sights on changing the future of education. I had already fallen in love with STEAM education several years before I set foot in my new school, witnessing its transformational powers. However, it’d be my new school where I’d truly test the impact and paradigm-shift qualities of STEAM as a holistic learning model, where students are taught to think as creators not merely consumers. Not a month into the 2016-2017 school year magic began to happen. See, STEAM is as much a mindset as it is a curriculum – and that’s where we started. Our #Courage2Create vision hinged upon healing a fractured culture, paralyzed by stigma and wrought with a covert inferiority complex. But, things were changing – fast. Students responded first, gravitating towards optimism and the possibility of learning through different modes and pedagogies. Next came the parents, then the community – then we went even bigger…

But let’s back-up, briefly:

Two years ago, I wrote a piece titled Rise of the Visionary Leader (Read it here). At that time I was vision-casting a new era of school leaders needed to usurp a century-long, archaic education paradigm, using fearless innovation, radical ideas and, above all, an unbridled passion to lead change. I had served in public education for almost a decade and watched first-hand how the effects of our industrial-age school model was stomping out any remnants of joy in what we were currently calling school. Teaching within this innovation-less model is what drove me to be a school principal, where I could both champion and implement change. There was no greater factor.

Flash-forward two years: I have just completed my first year as the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, America’s first Pre-k through 12 STEAM campus. When I said we went BIG earlier, that was no hyperbole. After a month of implementing a STEAM mindset and vision into the high school, the ripple effect took hold. Given the go-ahead by a visionary superintendent, we quite literally took our STEAM model and expanded it – stretching it across ALL grade-levels, with the vision and understanding that this experiential-based learning juggernaut was imperative for all students, especially our youngest ones.

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THE MOUNT

Like any good reflective practitioner, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own leadership efforts lived up to the musings and expectations of a younger me?

So, as I sit here and reflect on the past school year and our outcomes, I wrestle with the only question that seems to matter: Were we bold enough? For the sake of clarity, I’m not just talking about being different. We’ve seen different. Paideia, STEM, Academies, Charters, Parochial, they were all different. I wanted 2nd order change – a complete break from the past. This kind of change hinges on a catalyst, a legitimate change-agent that’s willing to embrace the Stockdale Paradox while broadcasting his or her risk-taking efforts for the entire world to see.

Bold. Not just different.

For instance, our students researched, designed and constructed thematic Escape Rooms. The transdisciplinary PBL, aptly titled #EscapeTheMount, included over seven content areas with nearly 100 students contributing. See for yourself here. We were forgoing theory and actually applying the Arts into almost everything. The impact was irrefutable: Discipline dropped (drastically), ACT scores rose (dramatically), and our enrollment, in conjunction with the revitalization efforts of the city itself we serve is spiking!

Escape Room view

Students monitor their Escape Room experience.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Our school is different, Dr. J. We’ve got intense poverty; Nearly unmanageable discipline; Almost zero parental involvement; Our central office doesn’t support us!” Of course, if this were an action-research dissertation, there’d have to be a limitations section, right? What were our constraints? What innate barriers stood seemingly insurmountable? So, let’s address the biggest elephant, a limitation that stands both connotatively and practically: Being a visionary leader in a public school.

A legitimate concern with public schools is how do you truly innovate within an overtly bureaucratic system, while earning enough early wins to not find yourself on the leadership chopping block come May? Furthermore, as author Diana Laufenberg famously noted, “you can’t have innovation with standardization.” Even beloved education advocate Sir Kenneth Robinson stated, “We have to personalize education, not standardize it.” Herein lies yet another innate public school quagmire. Just like the business sector, where start-up companies strive to take their small businesses public, going to scale while trying to maintain a culture of creative innovation is practically an oxymoron. Thus, our public education system, mirroring the high-volume factory output of the industrial age, is designed to standardize both curriculum and procedures in order to service the sheer volume of students while maintaining some semblance of quality control. Admittedly, there are many more elephants concerning public education, so at the risk of fully opening Pandora’s Box, let’s suffice to say that our public education system is, at the very least, curious to navigate. This realization and acceptance makes the next-step ever so critical:

Cutting through the noise

When we reference cutting through the noise, we begin our lap back to visionary leadership. The visionary leader operates amongst the static – surrounded by noise – yet somehow, almost supernaturally, can both see and get messages through. Let’s also be careful of confusing visionary leaders with mythical superheroes. We’re not letting school leaders off the hook that easy! It’s my firm belief that visionary leaders are more principle-centered than superhuman. Furthermore, it’s also my firm belief that visionary leaders are simply more in-tune with their WHY, which serves as something analogous to Tony Starks’ Arc Reactor, with a clear WHY perpetually generating passion into its leader. When we know our WHY, cultivated through countless hours of reflection, a growth mindset develops, serving as a scaffold amidst unchartered terrain.

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Evolution turns to revolution!

Added up, our WHY and a growth mindset form a sharp synergy. This synergy operates like a surgeon’s scalpel cutting through the aforementioned noise. It’s here, in this space, the visionary leader truly manifests, for now a new horizon begins to crystalize far beyond the distractions and disturbances of the public education paradigm. With a principle-centered compass coupled with an unrelenting, WHY-inspired passion, the visionary leader now begins to take on attributes and abilities lost to him or her before – call it third-eye-vision, gut-instinct, magic – no matter what name we give it, the visionary leader transcends the boundaries hindering the majority. This ascension towards something greater, outside the lines of mediocrity, complacency and normalcy, is where boldness happens – and fortune favors the bold. Fortune in this case is literally changing the lives of students and the community we serve, repositioning public education as debt-free catalyst towards future success.

Lastly, the correlation between visionary leaders and situational leadership should be noted. Visionary leaders must always ask the question, “What about the sand?” This question stems from concerns surrounding Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visionary leadership leading up to the Normandy invasion and whether or not the general had given sincere thought to the weight of the US’s massive tanks on soft beach sand. History lessons aside, the example is spot-on as visionary leaders must be able to toggle at-will between the micro and macro of leadership…faster than a speeding bullet!

See for yourself if we were bold enough by following me on Twitter @RyanBJackson1 and search our hashtag #TheMount.

Mr. Progress

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

I’ve talked before about my decision to stop drinking alcohol. This New Year’s Eve marked four years sober. My biological father died well over a year ago, end result of a hard-living life. He and I had been estranged five years before he finally met his grandson (relationships first to go with substance abusers) and at that point in my life I was over two years sober. I had never outright called myself an alcoholic but his premature death coupled with my own struggles with excess left me forced to face facts. Thankfully, by the time my father died and grief left me temporarily toiling over the inescapable idea that I was more than likely genetically hardwired to follow suit, I had already read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I eventually detached from grief-stricken logical fallacies because I understood and accepted Frankl’s concentration camp-tested claim that man’s greatest innate ability is undoubtedly his power to choose.

So I chose sobriety and with it the blank canvas of re-starting my physical, mental and emotional health journey. My very next move was seemingly trivial and by all accounts superficial but the effects and catalyst-like impact on my life have been game-changing. I was in the early stages of my doctoral program so I had “free” access to the university’s gym. I set an immediate goal of losing beer-belly fat so began the extremely humbling process of hitting the gym three times a week.

What I found out soon after those embarrassingly painful first gym visits, however, was an almost instant improvement in my entire physiology. Ever the skeptic, I just couldn’t deny I was feeling, looking, sleeping, even thinking better!

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Look good. Feel good. Do good.

It was upon this realization that the Fit Leaders ideology was born.

Never a big fan of self-help or motivational gurus but Tony Robbins’ mantra “Progress equals happiness” rang true after every session spent bettering myself in the gym. If life is our constant physical battle against gravity – literally keeping ourselves off the ground – then each session in the gym for me equated to grabbing the very next rung on the ladder of life. Now at this point in my professional career I’m transitioning from teacher to administrator in one of Nashville, TN’s toughest high schools. Maplewood High School, where I started my education career, is the stuff of legend: high discipline, high poverty, gang violence, low student achievement, etc. It was Dangerous Minds but real life. In the 80s a teacher was shot, mid 00s a murder at our graduation ceremony, pick a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching scenario we had it.

Now I was being asked and, ultimately, asking myself to lead others in this pressure-cooker of a high school. So my choice to abandon alcohol, consume more water, and force myself into the gym couldn’t have come at a better time. My job performance blossomed because I had more energy. My ability to influence increased because I could think better. It became crystal clear the correlation between personal and professional health, as I got physically stronger so did my job performance. As I looked and felt better, my interpersonal skills and relationship-building skyrocketed. This health-job correlation helped me turnaround a struggling inner-city high school, helping raise both ACT scores and graduation rate in the process.

I felt and thought better which meant I was able to pour into my passions even stronger.

I love art and believe it breathes life into the soul of a school, which led to me infusing art into our STEM curriculum – which attracted the attention of a nearby school system looking for an innovative school leader willing to embed Art across curriculums and create the nation’s first PK-14 STEAM campus. [Side Note: I’m now the Executive Lead Principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, the United State’s first PK-14 STEAM campus]

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Introducing America’s 1st K-14 campus.

As my career and energy-level steamrolled, I took to twitter and Instagram to share and connect with other thought and fitness leaders. I was bitten by the Abraham Maslow bug, eager to belong to a tribe of NewAge leaders who were ready to change the world by leading the millennial generation towards a healthier, purposeful life. Through this process a hashtag was born: #FitLeaders serves as a beacon, a categorical calling card that attracts, connects and bonds all those wanting, willing and striving for a better life. The Fit Leaders movement now reaches coast-to-coast, from Marilyn McAlister in Southern California to Sean Thom near the shores of New Jersey. With a growing presence stretching across the United States, the Fit Leaders vision has crystalized, formed by a collective of passionate leaders.

Fit Leaders is a lifestyle brand striving to sustain high-quality, innovative leadership across all industries in an ever-changing world. Our mission is to empower all those wanting a better, healthier life for the sake of both ourselves and the industries we serve. We understand that progress equals happiness and that even small, daily advances of momentum can result in life-changing good. Lastly, we commit to leading ourselves so that we can be rock stars at leading others.

Finding the Courage to Create

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

An anchor statement is your brand’s bottom-line, the boiled-down essence of everything your organization represents. I’ve been on a mission lately, evangelizing to educators the power of embracing their brand, both personal and professional, and I’m prepared now to put my money where my mouth is.

I was recently hired to administer my own school; I’m now the proud principal of Mt. Pleasant High School in Mt. Pleasant, TN. Naturally, I’m bringing my personal brand with me. In fact, I’m quite certain the #UnderdogsAdvocate brand played a large part in why I obtained the position. The past several years have been dedicated to showcasing my life’s work, tirelessly serving underprivileged students, in order to better connect with fellow educators, community members and various stakeholders. The impact of creating and sharpening my personal brand has had a multiplier effect on not only my work but also serves as a conduit for others to learn from my work, the driving factor of a professional learning network (PLN), as well as a 21st century form of professional development.

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Limitless possibilities

Immediately after taking the helm of Mt. Pleasant ideas began to swirl. Mt. Pleasant is a school in the midst of a rebirth-like transformation, surrounded by a city bubbling with innovation and business development. The school’s identity was starting to develop organically as its middle-school feeder (a visual and performing arts 5-8) was promoting incredibly talented freshmen year-after-year. This overwhelming surge highlighted the obvious: What’s the next step?

And so the #Courage2Create movement was born.

The idea is simple, and it most definitely applies directly to Mt. Pleasant; however, its impact and reach stretches far beyond any one particular classroom, school or school district. Actually, I’d argue the ethos of Courage to Create expands through school systems, organizations, families, even governments. It’s a divergent way of thinking, where status quos are burned in favor of rebuilding new paradigms from the ashes of archaic, controlling old ones. All of this scholarly rhetoric sounds great nestled in a blog post but it has to have a starting point, a tangible beginning: the beginning is courage.

Courage implies we make a leap of faith, trusting our instincts, relying on our skillsets. Courage rejects judgment, ignoring the mundane majority in favor of a more exclusive, eccentric club. You can begin to see how my two brands intersect, as the Underdog’s Advocate platform is built around proving the majority wrong while writing your own success story. The Courage to Create movement is merely an extension of that ethos; it’s where the rubber-meets-the-road. Initially, I thought this movement exclusively applied to young people – I’m an educator thus my brain constantly focuses on improving student outcomes – but a trip to Boston, speaking at the Americans for the Arts convention expanded the idea.

After speaking with artists, educators and community stakeholders from across the country, the unyielding message was an extreme need for change. Reduce education’s standardization and increase community arts influence to improve quality of life were just a few of the common threads echoed during the convention. The majority of the dialogue that followed centered on HOW? How do we change things? How do we inspire others? How do we sustain it? My response overwhelmingly was simple: Courage. Yes, the courage to begin, as so often the decision to change and its first-step require the most faith, yet also the courage to persevere, that unwavering fortitude to weather life’s (and our system’s) inevitable storms.

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Introducing the #Courage2Create vision at AFTACON.

At Mt. Pleasant it will mean inspiring a student body to find the courage to create their future, a symbolic rally-cry that emphasizes your destiny is indeed in your hands not cemented by bloodline or previous expectations. Practically speaking, we’ll ask students to embrace their inner-artist, whether that’s as an engineer whose art serves a necessary utilitarian purpose through the beautiful bridges and infrastructure designs they’ll create or the dancers, musicians and painters whose artistic-creations equate to food for the wearied soul. Even student-athletes will see the artistry behind disciplined training and courageous commitment. Furthermore, it’ll mean challenging a faculty and staff to step outside of their comfort zones. Embrace the courageous act of relinquishing the safety and self-control of our previous norms in order to create something new – something different.

The Courage to Create is most definitely our Mt. Pleasant High School anchor statement but it’s so much more than that. It runs parallel with my philosophy on leadership:

“Leadership is a lifestyle.”

And, in essence, so is the Courage to Create. It’s an amalgamation of growth mindset, logotherapy and a burgeoning STEAM movement. All of this coupled with a personal touch, that unique flair that distinguishes us from every other living thing making our creations truly one-of-a-kind.

Our Courage to Create mission is uniquely embedded within the rising tide of Mt. Pleasant High School but its universal message – the theme that transcends geographical borders and passionate purple cow leaders – lies within the hearts of all organizations redefining themselves. It’s a synergy that has a Tesla-ability to illuminate our shared connections while celebrating peacock-inspired differences. Please join us on this journey towards self-discovery and realizing then maximizing human potential.

All it takes is courage…