An Interview with Dr. Thelma Jackson

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Recently, we sat down with Dr. Thelma Jackson, principal of Seminole Elementary School in Okeechobee, FL, to talk about her experience at the Standards Institute. Dr. Jackson shared what she learned alongside her team and how her practice has changed as a result.

UnboundEd: Tell me about your experience at Standards Institute.

Dr. Thelma Jackson: Standards Institute was hope. It laid a foundation of hope for me as a leader and for my school. The Institute gave us quality resources, and it helped us move beyond thinking, “It cannot happen.” Instead, we started saying, “We can do it!” Our facilitators shared quality resources that we can always go back to and that will keep us grounded even as we encounter changes to curriculum in our district and state. It was not a canned professional development experience. Think about diets; we all know diets work, but certain diets don’t work for everyone. Before I experienced Institute, I basically thought it was for people who only needed a small fix, only had to lose a few pounds, if you will. Institute was not like that. It was a learning experience that was actually tailored to our needs. Institute was the perfect “diet” for me and my school.

UE: What was the first thing you did when you returned from Standards Institute?

TJ: When I came back from Institute I told my staff that I now look at standards-based instruction from a civil rights perspective. I told them we need to stop thinking about the standards as overwhelming and burdensome. The standards are the bare minimum, so let’s stop viewing them as so hard. I now tell my staff that the standards are our friend, not our enemy.

Next, I asked my staff to look at the wire diagrams and rethink our starting point. In the past, instead of starting with the standard, we would often talk about what our students could not do. I think we were acting out of fear that our students would not understand the material. They will! Now we are starting with rigorous texts instead of making it easier for students before they even start. We already see how proud our students are and how they are meeting the challenge. Before Institute teachers would say, “This is what the standard says, but I’m not sure the authors of the standards know our kids.” Now we just look at standard and say, “How do we get our students there?”

UE: We talked about the intersection of equity and the standards a good deal at Institute. What does equity mean to you and how does it connect to high standards?

TJ: Horace Mann said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” The standards are the tool we can use to equalize and to hold ourselves, the adults, accountable to giving our students the education they deserve.

UE: Can you tell me about some of the strategic leadership changes you’ve put in place since Institute?

TJ: We started using the Expeditionary Learning Curriculum available on UnboundEd’s website in all of our fifth grade classrooms. We were using something else while considering Expeditionary Learning. Institute made me finally say to the fifth grade team, “Let’s just do it!” With EL, teachers are now getting students engaged with standards-aligned units and lessons and are making connections between the curriculum and foundational literacy skills. Implementation has been a lot of work for our staff, but it has also helped motivate the teachers because students are doing things they have never done before, like reading whole books that are rigorous. Our fifth graders are so proud of themselves.

We are now focusing on what we are asking students to do, and the curriculum is providing teachers with a framework that is objective and allows them to decide what tasks are rigorous. After Institute, I realized that it is not just about the standards, but very much about the tasks we provide students. For example, what are we asking students to do and how will that get them to master standards? I am not telling teachers that what they have been doing is wrong. Instead, I ask them to look at what we were doing and compare it to the lesson. My staff is now seeing that they were not teaching to the standards before and their instruction was not rigorous. Now they have a standards-aligned curriculum that is a resource to help them change their practice.

UE: Tell me about that one student who inspired you to stay in education?

TJ: Every year our district has Senior Walks where graduating high school seniors go back to their elementary schools and walk through the halls in their caps and gowns. This year, I decided to do it earlier to motivate our students before the state exam. The seniors came last week and shared their experiences about being right here in this building in third or fourth grade. I asked one of the high school students to talk to one of our fourth graders. They both are African American male students, and it was powerful — for both the fourth grader and me — to have the high school senior share his experience as one of the few African American males in the school. He talked about all that he did to succeed and, eventually, to get to his high school graduation. Another fourth grade student said that graduating from high school was not real to her until she saw those high school seniors on campus last week.

I keep a picture of one of my former students. I was his teacher when he was in 8th grade many years ago, and when he graduated from high school, he sent me the picture and a letter. He told me that before 8th grade he never read books or did his work but that I changed that for him. He told me he was going to culinary school where he planned to make a cake recipe and name it after me. As a black female teacher, I never thought I would have impacted a white male in this way. That is why I do this work. Every. Day.

UE: Why should other leaders consider attending a Standards Institute?

TJ: They should attend to identify why they are engaged in the work of school leadership. Being a school leader is more than the grade your school gets on a district report card or the accolades you might receive as a leader. Institute reminds you of this. One of the resources shared at Standards Institute was Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy by Marilyn Adams. That article made me realize that there is so much I don’t know and that I need to go back to identify what I need to learn so I can do this work more effectively. I realized that I needed to be more engaged and more informed beyond what my district offers so that I am focused on what needs to start happening for our students. Institute helped me better understand why I am doing this work and I think it will do the same for others.

UE: What is one thing that is now concrete for you and your team after attending Institute?

TJ: We finally understand phonics and what needs to be taught. We have taught phonics before, but now we are having conversations about foundational literacy instead of just phonics. I have used The Elements of Aligned Instruction created by UnboundEd. I am getting it into the hands of team leaders and coaches to compare our current block to see how it matches up with the The Elements of Aligned Instruction as we look to make changes to our program for next year. We have already found that we are not doing phonics and read- alouds enough. We are working right now to compare what we are doing against what we need to do and we are using The Elements of Aligned Instruction to frame our literacy block next year.

UE: Can you share a lightbulb or aha moment from Institute?

TJ: My aha moment was on the last day of Institute. I always pride myself on being tough, and I need to be tough as a leader, but that is not all that I am. My biggest aha came when our facilitator talked about being my authentic self and what that means for me as a leader. Having the opportunity to be me and know that I can be myself as a leader was very powerful. It helped me connect with people without feeling competition. It was okay for me to learn things I did not know and to be honest about what I am facing as a leader.

UE: Are you planning to attend Institute again and if so, what do you hope to learn or build on at the next Institute?

TJ: Yes, I will be there! I really want to continue to dig deeper into the tasks and what we are asking teachers to do and talk to other leaders in the room about our organizational systems and structures. Ultimately, I have to reflect deeply on my actions and what I am doing as the leader because that is what will turn our school around. The Institute gives me that opportunity.