Collaborate as You Climb the Leadership Ladder
A lifelong learner shares lessons from a career in education leadership.
The leadership journey doesn’t have to be linear to be fruitful. Jackie Wilson, executive director of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration, rose through the ranks in school settings as a paraprofessional, a teacher, a reading specialist, an assistant principal, and a principal before finding further successes at the state and national levels. Wilson directs NPBEA in its mission to provide school and school system leadership with standards-based, research-backed policy and preparation.
We sat down with Wilson for a conversation about her 50-year career in education leadership during a recent episode of NAESP’s Principal Podcast. Below is an excerpt from that Q&A that will inspire other women who are on various steps of the leadership ladder.
Thompson: How do you balance your roles as a leader, a spouse, and a mother?
Wilson: Balancing these roles and responsibilities is a constant challenge as a woman who is trying to navigate [the] long and winding road of school leadership. Often as women, our ambition can be a conflict for us in the workplace because of our other responsibilities as a wife, mother, daughter, and friend. I have found that [in] sharing my goals and passions with my family, they’ve been great thought partners and cheerleaders who have encouraged my ambition.
Thompson: Take us through the journey of starting out as a paraprofessional and a classroom teacher.
Wilson: It was the first job I had as a teacher when I started to really pay attention to the role of the principal. I was fortunate to work with a wonderful principal, Mr. Ed Burton, at my first school, Lord Baltimore Elementary [in Ocean View, Delaware]. What I remember as a teacher is that he was engaged, he was knowledgeable, he cared, and he was supportive—exactly what I needed for my first year of teaching. I would have stayed in that school, but there was reduction in force, so I was transferred to another school. I knew Mr. Burton and I would find ourselves working together again, and we did.
Gomez: It sounds like you spent a lot of time building your own capacity to be able to build the capacity of others. What about those experiences drove you to reach higher?
Wilson: I tell educators today that sometimes we wonder why we end up in the jobs that we end up in, and I’ll always say they’re just preparation for the next role you’ll take on.
Thompson: Let’s talk about what it meant to you to be able to impact families and how that affected your leadership journey.
Wilson: To build a culture, we need to have a supportive environment in our school for teaching and learning. When I got my assistant principal certification, I applied for my first assistant principal position. Lord Baltimore was going to have an opening for that position, but another assistant principal in that district asked to transfer, so I was assigned as assistant principal at the school that person had just left—25 miles away.
I was disappointed, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was moving from an elementary school of 500 students to one with 1,200 students and two assistant principals and a principal. The school was much more diverse, with a large population of students speaking English as a second language. I had to learn from the staff, parents, and community. I began riding the school bus and asking the bus driver about the community. I would have informal meetings with teachers in small grade-level groups and have coffee with them. I met with parent groups and focus groups and the cafeteria staff.
Gomez: Talk to us about the next steps on your educational journey.
Wilson: I had been at this school for six years, and I felt that maybe it was time for a change. I thought, “I’m ready to be a principal.” But an assistant principal position came up at Lord Baltimore, where I had always wanted to be the principal, and I thought, “I have to be patient.” I applied to the job and went back to work for Mr. Burton for a year before he retired. I was moved into the position of principal. Returning to a school where I had worked with teachers who had been my colleagues and friends, and now I was going to be their supervisor, was challenging. I was asked by the superintendent to lead the change the school needed, but the question I had to ask myself was, “I’m ready to lead, but is this staff ready for me to lead?”
Thompson: How did you and your staff handle that experience?
Wilson: I decided to approach this as I do most things: Let’s collaborate, let’s investigate, and let’s learn together how to improve the school. I took teachers to conferences on school improvement. I wrote grants so we could have funds to explore models and frameworks. We took trips to other schools and took detailed notes. I conducted surveys. I talked to parents. I met with students every week at lunch to hear from children, who can tell you so much about the school. We analyzed our data. We participated in professional development after school and in the evenings. But in five years—I didn’t call it turnaround or school improvement; I called it a redesign—we improved programs for all students.
Thompson: What takeaways would you give women in leadership?
Wilson: We have to be fearless as women. Don’t ever forget the power of partnerships and collaboration. You can’t do it all by yourself, so get buy-in to sustain your work.
Jessica Gomez is principal of Alice Birney Elementary School in Colton, California, a principal mentor, and a fellow with the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership.
Andrea Thompson is education associate for school leadership at the Delaware Department of Education, a fellow with the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership, and an NAESP Mastermind facilitator.
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Check out the full interview with Jackie Wilson on the NAESP Principal Podcast.
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