Unprecedented leadership for unprecedented times
A conversation about pandemic school leadership with Dr. Errick L. Greene, Superintendent, Jackson Public Schools, by Dr.Kristyn Klei Borrero, Founder, CT3
Dr. Errick Greene is a lifetime educator, change maker, and leader at the helm of Jackson Public Schools, the largest urban district in the state of Mississippi. Dr. Greene grew up in Flint, Michigan, and then went on to earn his bachelors, two masters, and doctorate degrees from Howard University, Trinity University, and University of Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming superintendent of Jackson Public Schools in 2018, Dr. Greene worked in DC Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools, and Tulsa Public Schools. During his time as superintendent, Dr. Greene has already faced myriad challenges, including a global pandemic, resourcing shortages, racial and social injustice, and a major pivot in what K-12 education looks like across the country.
Dr. Greene has leveraged his experience, feedback, the capacity of his team, and his love of a community to continue to promote a shared vision that hopes to change the outcomes for children and families in Jackson. Dr. Greene took some time to speak with me about what inspires him, his work in Jackson, and how his leadership has evolved during this unprecedented time.
As a non-native, tell us how you’re building a deep connection to Jackson.
I grew up in Michigan, and like many African American families, was part of that Great Migration up north. So, I have tons of family in Mississippi and Arkansas in addition to Chicago and Michigan. I spent some summers down here in the South — in Mississippi. My mom is actually from the Mississippi Delta, so the area is not completely foreign to me.
I am a relational leader, and I believe in the power of authentic relationships. Understanding context and leading learning — my own learning first and foremost — I’ve been intentional about understanding where people are and what motivates folks. My history, beliefs and culture are largely shared in this region of the country, so I’ve used them to entrench myself quickly in the Jackson community.
I’m what I like to call an “extroverted introvert.” I need my “me” time, but it’s also important to me to get to know the people here. I’ve built advisory committees and engaged in different sectors and places in town, both the places where folks might assume I would go — with other leaders and high-profile people, as well as places with regular community members who have been amazing and very giving of their time. Everyone has shared their own understanding of what’s at play here in Jackson, and some of the enormous expectations that they have for education.
I’m very transparent with our team members as to who I am and what I believe I bring. There’s also plenty of space for them to bring their smarts and their knowledge and their interests to the table so it isn’t the Errick Greene show; but together, we’re building a vision and bringing to life this vision that’s focused on children and families.
What do you think are the key levers for improving the educational outcomes for Jackson students?
Engagement. We’re thinking about scholars and their agency around their learning. Thinking more broadly about the things we put it in front of them, the questions we ask them, the work that we assign to them, and the spaces we create or allow them to create. Their engagement (and learning) is on the line.
Without engagement, scholars won’t get up, get dressed, jump online, or get into the building to do the things that educators say are important. Building buy-in with scholars as learners is paramount for improving educational outcomes. We don’t want to have to twist arms; we want them to be excited and ready to engage because they know coming to school is worth their time.
Engagement is huge, huge, huge. We’ve seen some challenges, so one of the reasons we’ve been working with CT3 is to help rethink and improve our engagement levels in learning across the board.
One of our core values is relevance, so it’s also really important for us as we lean into that core value to ground learning regularly in what’s happening today, in the news, in the community, in the school system, in the building, and in the city.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced during this pandemic?
Resources and the inequities around resourcing. Tools like technology and connectivity, as well as lack of social resources exhibited in food insecurities, housing insecurities, and inadequate healthcare (healthcare in general is lacking, not to mention healthcare in a pandemic). So those kinds of resources are inequitable across the district, and the inequity has become even more transparent during the pandemic. In addition to that, for all of us, I think it’s about the challenge of managing the day while leading for tomorrow — managing logistics, communications, procurement, and caring for all the staff while doing everything at a distance.
At the same time, it’s about not losing sight of the fact that we launched a strategic plan back in the summer of 2019 and that shouldn’t just be thrown out the window now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Yes, we have to pay attention and deal with the urgency that is today, but all of us have to maintain that focus on where we want to be down the road and bring our long-term vision to fruition.
You’re naming some of the brutal honesties surfacing during the pandemic in our society, whether it be systemic racism or food and housing insecurities. All those things have been ever-present but are exacerbated during the pandemic. In this vein, what has been the biggest surprise to you?
A few things. The lack of understanding as to the depth and breadth of those insecurities and the gaps between “haves and have nots,” but also all the resources that actually are available or could be fairly readily made available to folks if we simply prioritize them…if we simply say, “Enough is enough. We need to mobilize and make these resources available to children, families, and community members.”
I’ve been blown away by some of the ways in which community members have wrapped their arms around our children and families and even some of our team members who are struggling to make ends meet. I also think there’s a lot to be learned and understood about what assets exist within the community and how, with just a little bit of vision and a little extra commitment and mobilization, we can actually make these things available to more and more of our students, team members, and community members.
You’re starting to surface some things you’re proud of. Please highlight those that concern your students, your community, your team, and your staff.
This is not in any order, but I am very pleased with the heart that’s showing up among team members and the community around mobilizing to meet needs. We’re all working long, crazy hours and dealing with increased stress because we understand the importance of meeting these needs.
Although it took a pandemic for this to be realized, I’m also pleased that we’ve increased the communications within and among team members in Jackson Public Schools. I’ve been in much greater communication with community partners, potential funders, legislators, and council members, the mayor’s office, and on and on. I’ve come to realize how many folks care about Jackson Public Schools and want to be a part of what works. I know that we’re not in this alone, so that has been a huge point of pride for me and helped as I’ve continued to try to find my place in the community here and in Jackson.
I think most people who have known me for a long time understand that feedback is part of my “secret sauce.” Effective feedback and the systems for giving that feedback are the major levers in improving our system. My team has been giving feedback to those they supervise and to their peers. This allows us the opportunity to really focus on what effective feedback looks like based on the role — for teachers, scholars, team members, for me as the superintendent, and so on.
I’m also very proud of the ways in which our folks are buying into and tearing down the barriers regarding who should receive feedback and what it means when you receive feedback. Changing the mindset that you’re no less smart, you’re no less caring, that feedback is actually a show of affection, a sign of caring. I’m excited to see feedback happening, and I’m excited to carry that forward.
What new opportunities in K-12 learning do you foresee because of this pandemic?
I’m really pushing my colleagues to think about how we evolve and emerge from this pandemic better than when it showed up. I want to make sure that we’re thinking critically about the way we use time. Time within the current bell schedule, the calendar for the year, all of that, but also rethinking the time outside of school.
I want us to think critically about how we will know along the way that scholars are learning and how, why, and when they are mastering skills. Teachers are building more skills across the board in using our benchmark assessments. The concept is not earth-shattering, but we absolutely must use our time more wisely. As we utilize technological tools, we need to rethink how we spend time in learning experiences, how to think more critically about the evidence of learning and mastery such that they can inform more accurately and more effectively what we do next, and how we prioritize skills, standards, and lessons.
Finally, we need to think critically about the racial issues that have been coming to a head. We need to think critically about the content we’re teaching and some of the history and the framing of that history. We also need to focus on social issues and the degree to which we give young people opportunities to grapple with them, make sense of them, and create their own content (not simply to be consumers). We need to ensure that young people have greater agency and greater voice in their learning and that they start to lead the learning and discussions in the community about some of these issues going forward.
Tell me about your team in Jackson and how they contribute to your leadership and vision.
I’ve spent a great deal of my own time and resources I brought to the district to invest in the team, which includes me, senior leaders, and other people throughout the district, because it’s important to do so. We have to get better every day, so it’s been really wonderful not only to have some resources but also to have willing participants — team members who want to be coached, to take feedback, to lead differently.
The coaching and the learning for all of us involves asking, “How do we create the space so that each individual brings their whole and best selves to the work? How do we help individuals with greater insights or more data so they can lead us and bring us to the table to address an issue that they see?” It’s been really heartening to have willing and eager team members who understand that each of us has work to do to get better faster.
We know educators are superheroes. If you had to name your superpower, what would it be?
The way I consistently work to build relationships. Thanks to my past experiences, I am confident that people will go so much farther with you if there’s a relationship. They will comply with the ask even if they don’t fully believe in it or feel like they have the time or the wherewithal to do it because of that relationship. It happens in classrooms, it happens in schools, it happens in teams, it happens in organizations, and it happens in the community. I’ve had tons of experiences in my career and in life where relationships have fueled all kinds of ideas that would have been dead in the water if it were not for a relationship with the individual.
Relationships cause you to say, “I care about you, and therefore, I care about what you care about; I care about you and your well-being; I care about your experiences and where you’re going down the road, and so I want to do some things that set you up for greater success.” Relationships demonstrate care.
You have a ton of responsibilities. What is something you would like folks to know about you or something that you do to create some work-life balance with all the responsibilities?
I mentioned earlier that I’m a bit of an extroverted introvert. I try to be mindful of the fact that many people see me through sound bites and on TV or in these curated ways, but they don’t really have opportunities to know me. This is true of scholars, parents, and team members alike. So, I try to find opportunities to bump into folks out in public and to spend time with them. I know how important those relationships are, especially as a brand ambassador for the district. Finding opportunities can be a challenge for me when I want to put a period on my workday to recharge and just be human. But that’s part of the job, and things are hard right now for a lot of folks, so I want everyone to know that nothing is simple, it’s really intentional work for me, and it requires me to be on. I absolutely love that folks greet me at the grocery store because they could very well just be like “whatever” and not be interested in the work that we’re doing.
CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.