Jethro Jones, 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, is a former principal in Fairbanks, Alaska, and host of Transformative Principal, where he interviews principals, leaders, and influencers who help improve K-12 education throughout the world. He is also the founder of Transformative Leadership Summit and author of the new book, SchoolX: How principals can design a transformative school experience for students, teachers, parents – and themselves! Available at http://schoolx.me

Daniel: I've known Jethro Jones for years. We have met face to face at a number of conferences, co-presented. We've put on together a transformative leadership summit a number of times. We've shared meals and have developed a great friendship. I really appreciate his leadership, his insight, his dedication and investment to our field of education. I'm very proud to say that Jethro has a book out. If you're one of his podcasts listeners and you should be, over at the transformative principal you know he's released School X, how principals can design a transformative school experience for students, teachers, parents in themselves. In today's show, we talk about the book, what inspired him to write it and really what can principals do if they're trying to create that school experience that meets the needs of everyone in the community. So it's with great honor that I get to record and have a conversation with my friend, Jethro Jones and present you his work, School X. I hope you enjoy it.

Daniel: All students have an opportunity to succeed with organized binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn more@organizedbinder.com. Today's podcast is brought to you by Teach FX. It's basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk, get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting TeachFx.com/BLBS. Well, Hey there Ruckus Makers.

Daniel: I'm here with my friend Jethro Jones of the transformative principal. He's been on the show a lot and we're good friends. I hope you know him by now. If you don't, I gotta do something about that. One thing I can do is make sure we have a great conversation today. Talking about a new book that Jethro just released called School X, how principals can design a transformative school experience for students, teachers, parents, and themselves. Jethro. Welcome to the show.

Jethro: Thank you. I am super excited to be here. As you mentioned, we are good friends and we talk all the time, but it's actually been a while since we've been on each other's podcasts. When you moved to Europe, I think that was about the last time we recorded something. So I think we need to get back on the horse and have you on my podcast again also.

Daniel: For sure. I was wondering, did I do something or what happened?

Jethro: We still talked every other week, but we just record it.

Daniel: Okay. You're right. You still talk to me. Okay. Well, I want this show to be about you and I'm so proud and pumped that this book is out, School X. Why don't we just start at the beginning and why did you feel the need to write it?

Jethro: Well, for me personally, I had a lot of different experiences with school growing up. I went to five elementary schools and three different high schools, and that's actually what pushed me into education was having those experiences and realizing that to be honest, they really weren't that great. I have been trying to do as a school principal for many years is trying to figure out how to redesign school, to make it meet the needs of those that are right in front of me and not just try to put everybody through some factory system, but really make it personalized for them and be supportive of the things that they needed. My whole educational career has been trying to redesign school for the people in front of me. After pretty successfully, I'd say in three different schools as a principal, I decided I should probably write a book about it. So, I did,

Daniel: And now it's here, it's available wherever you want to buy books. So that's pretty cool. We'll link it up for you in the, in the show notes. You described a bit of the, what's it for. It is about redesigning school and we're both big fans, probably consider Seth Godin a mentor in many ways. Who's it for, how would you answer that?

Jethro: So to me, this book is for anybody who wants to make a real impact on the kids and the teachers and the families that are in their school. If you just want to go through the motions, get kids through the system, then this book is not for you. If you are a really big fan of Hattie and Marzano, you might not like this book because they talk about designing things for the masses and I'm talking about designing things for individual people. You can't always trust the research when it comes to individual people because you need to put their needs first. Quick story about that. My daughter has down syndrome and one of the things that Hattie says is that mainstreaming is not effective.

Jethro: When I looked at my daughter though, and what her school experience had been in different schools, I knew the mainstreaming for her was really, really important. It made a huge difference. She believed that she could do more when she was around people who were doing more. So that was an area where we worked hard at, through her IEP process to design the school for her and met some challenges. When we had the opportunity to really design it for her, she saw great success. That's the kind of thing that we want to encourage people to do is to really look at the kids that are in front of you and design it for them wherever they're at. And that means that it's going to look different for every school and it's going to look different year to year, and that can be challenging. But the empowering thing about that is that once you look at all these different kids that you're serving and see how you're serving them, it's really inspiring to go back and see what you've done to make their life so much better.

Daniel: Let's stick with this idea of making things personal and designing for the individual. That's a really interesting idea. It makes a lot of sense when you're talking about your daughter, this is family, you know her well and you see her, interact with her every day. So if it's your student, what are the questions that you might ask or what's the approach you might take when it's not somebody, as intimately as your daughter so that you can personalize that experience?

Jethro: Yeah, that's a really important question because it gets to the point of how do we figure out how to design things for the kids that are in front of us and where you start. And what I suggest to leaders all over the world is you start with the design thinking process, aiming to gain empathy for those that you're serving first and understand what their challenges are, what they're going through, what they're good at, what their strengths are and work on first, knowing more about them. Because if you don't know anything about your kids, then you're going to struggle in supporting them. You've got to figure out what makes them tick, what their frustrations are and gain some empathy. You can do that through asking them, shadowing them, doing surveys. They're all kinds of different ways. Amy Fast, a principal in Oregon.

Jethro: She talks about giving these really in depth surveys, taking the time to go in and talk to every class. And then intentionally saying, these are not anonymous because we're going to follow up with your responses and then really getting to know the kids through those survey, which is a scalable thing, but then having individual conversations with them after the fact. If somebody says that they're disengaged from school, you don't just say, okay, 10% of our kids are disengaged. What can we do to engage them? You go talk to those 10% and you say, why aren't you engaged? What can we do to help you? How can we support you in this process? It can be big things like that, or it can be at the little things. Like one thing that we did in Kodiak Middle School was we saw that a bunch of kids aren't getting lunch.

Jethro: We went and just watched what was happening, why they weren't eating lunch. And it was fascinating to see that they weren't eating lunch because they want to sit down and talk with their friends instead of getting in line for lunch. So we went through the design thinking process to solve that problem, solved it wrong the first couple of times and then we figured out how to do it right. And once we did it right then we were able to make it. So the kids, one didn't miss lunch anymore and didn't miss time sitting with their friends.

Daniel: There's so much to unpack there. I love it. One part is looking data, taking the anonymity out of it, right? Don't just say 10% aren't doing X or struggle with classes, aren't coming to school, go to those students, observe those students have conversations with them and actually figure out what would make it better. I love the quick story about the cafeteria, because you are observing through the design thinking process, failed a couple of times, but learned, right. And then came to a solution that ended up working and what a great exercise of empathy to understand. School is a big social experiment. I remember the favorite parts of it was connecting with others, making friends and creating those memories. And so just like your students, I would want the majority of my time socializing.

Daniel: So you figured out how to make that work. The kids still got to eat as a result, kudos to you. So appreciate you sharing that. A little bit ago you talked about how the plan might need to change year after year. So if I'm listening, I'm a Ruckus Maker listening that could sound scary. It sounds like a lot of work, but I know you think at a systems level, you have solutions for us. You talked about surveys and focus groups that work at scale, but any other tips to help the Ruckus Maker listening. So when they hear changing year to year, that doesn't mean, okay, I'm not going to do this. It's too much.

Jethro: Yeah. That's a real issue because you do feel overwhelmed. When you think about changing every year, you also feel like maybe we're over initialized. Like there's too many initiatives and we can't keep up with everything. One of my schools, we had 32 initiatives going at the same time. When you think about that, you're like, Oh my goodness, how do we do that? But the reality you don't have truly that many initiatives, you have a singular vision, which I know that you talk about all the time. Danny, you have a vision for your school where you're going, and then you do allow people, in their areas of strength, make changes to make things better. This is a key component of this is that you're not as the principal micromanaging and taking care of every little detail that anybody could be dealing with.

Jethro: That's not the point. The point is for you as the principal to have a vision that is overarching, that people can get behind, people can rally behind and that meets the needs of the kids in your building. When I went to Fairbanks our big vision was that we were going to personalize learning for our students. Anything that we talked about, if it did not contribute to personalizing learning for our students, we weren't interested. When I was an assistant principal it was all about getting kids at grade level, reading by third grade. If it didn't relate to that, we weren't really interested. When you have these overarching visions, when you have a clear vision of where go, then it makes a lot more sense. It makes a lot easier, but then you still need to personalize and adapt for the kids that are in front of you.

Jethro: One year, having an RTI process that is super efficient and fluid may work really well, but then the next year you get a group of kids and you recognize that the RCI process isn't going to work because RTI is focusing on tiers two and three. What you recognize that year is that you have a big problem in tier one. So you focus your efforts on that tier one instruction, that core instruction that every single student is getting and you make sure the kids are getting good tier one instruction because that's what that group of kids needs. Instead of saying everything has to change every year, it doesn't have to be that way. You've got to have a vision and then adjust each year to the kids who are in front of you to help you meet that vision.

Daniel: YOu design the book, if I remember correctly, you have the leadership experience, teacher experience, student, parent, and community. Can you riff a bit on why you organize the book that way?

Jethro: Yeah. So this was largely because of how we organized the transformative leadership summit that you and I did a few years ago. I really liked that idea and wanted to, instead of saying, chapter one do this, chapter two do that, chapter three do that. What I want principals to do as they're reading this book is put themselves in the position of those different stakeholders and see what their school is like for them during that time, when they're thinking about that particular stakeholder. So for example, right now my school district here in Washington, they're doing real time distance learning. I don't know that they have actually thought about what that looks like at home for parents and what it means is during the Coronavirus. They are doing live classes for high schoolers from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning.

Jethro: And then they're supposed to work all afternoon independently. If you have one kid and they're in high school, then that's all well and good. But if you have four kids like I do, then it's a much different experience. And for kids on zoom every day from 8:30 to 11:30, I mean, that's a lot of the time. And for the expectation to be that you arrive to class five minutes early and you're there at 8:25 in the morning. I mean, that's, to be honest, that's just not going to happen in my house. We're not going to be able to be on zoom, all that time. You've got to put yourself in the position of those people. Think about your plans right now for what your school is during the coronavirus right now, have you thought about what it's like for different types of families in your community?

Jethro: Those that , are low socioeconomic status. Also those that are high socioeconomic status, who may have other things they'd want to do. I was talking to parent just the other day and she said, this realtime distance learning is a total joke. I walked into the founder room where my son was new, was doing class and he was playing clash of clans on his phone and his video was off and he was muted and the teacher was just going on and had no idea what he was doing, which you can't expect that from a teacher. Right. So think about that teacher and her situation. She's got to give this lesson, how does she know that her kids are engaged? How does she know that she's doing something meaningful for them? It's a really, it's a really tough situation for everybody. But if we take the extra step and try to put ourselves in their shoes and try to empathize and understand what they're going through, we're going to get a better idea of what it could look like and how we could make it better.

Daniel: I'm really enjoying our conversation about your new book School X, available everywhere. We're going to pause here just for a moment for a message from our sponsors. When we get back, we'll talk a little bit more and close out our conversation. Today's show is brought to you by organized binder, organized binder develops the skills and habits. All students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom, learn more@organizedbinder.com. Better leaders, better schools is brought to you by school leaders like principal Katara using Teach FX. Special populations benefit the most from verbally engaging in class, but get far fewer opportunities to do so than their peers, especially in virtual classes, Teach FX, measures verbal engagement automatically in virtual or in person classes to help schools and teachers address these issues of equity during COVID. Learn more and get a special offer from better leaders, better schools, listeners@teachfx.com/blbs that's teachfx.com/blbs

Daniel: All right. We're back with Jethro Jones, my friend and author of the hot new release School X, how principals can design a transformative school experience for students, teachers, parents, and themselves. It's a wonderful read, a great resource for Ruckus Makers that are listening again. It's linked up in the show notes and I'd love to ask. What was your favorite part of the book?

Jethro: My favorite part of the book. Well, as an author yourself, I'm sick of the entire book now because I've paid so much attention to it. No, I'm just kidding. I think my favorite part of the book is really thinking about the student experience because when you really take the time to see how kids are doing in your school, you can see just amazing things happen. The stories of kids who have grown and developed in ways that you just never think is possible is just inspiring. I'll just share a quick story about a student. We had a student who was this big African American student and he was loud and he was the biggest kid in our school. Any time there was any commotion, guess who got blamed for it, this kid we'll call him Jacob.

Jethro: So Jacob got blamed for everything, no matter what it was, he was always getting blamed because he was always involved and he was always in the middle of it, no matter what it was. I saw him and I thought about things from his perspective. I thought about what that must feel like to always be getting blamed and how he must feel like nobody ever listens to him. He never gets a fair shot. I said, okay, I saw this happen like the first day of school. I knew he was going to be that kid who was in my office all the time. And so I made a commitment right away that I was going to learn, that I was going to hear him out. I was only going to punish him if it was very clear that he was doing something that he shouldn't.

Jethro: And according to our discipline policy, he should have been probably recommended for expulsion because of how much he was involved with stuff. But most of it was him just being a loud human being and had nothing to do with anything else. He was just loud. So he got up and got caught up in things. I listened to him all year long. I talked to him all the time, at least two or three times a week, every single week. I was getting to the point towards the end of the year where I was like, man, this kid is just not learning anything. We have the same conversations every single week. At the end of the year, I was like, you're at the point now where if you get in involved with anything, I'm just going to send you home for the rest of the year, because you just keep on doing the same things.

Jethro: Sure enough, three days before school gets out, he gets in a fight at the end of the school day. I was like, man, come on. But then here's the thing, Danny, after he got in the fight, he came into my office and I committed that I was going to listen to him. So I listened to him. The first words out of his mouth were Mr. Jones. I was scared. And I was like, what? You were scared. I've never heard you say that before in my life. What are you talking about? You were scared. And he said, this guy was saying stuff to my friend and he pushed him. So I got in front of my friend to defend him and push the guy away. I didn't want to fight him, but I didn't know what to do.

Jethro: And I was just scared because I knew I was going to get in trouble, but I've been trying so hard and I didn't want to. And he just like verbal diarrhea and just let it all out. But the fact that he finally recognized that he was scared and didn't know what to do was a huge breakthrough. It was one of those moments where he would never have gotten to that point. If I had treated him, how he had been treated his whole entire time. And because I took the time to listen every single time, he knew that he could talk to me. I said, ,you made a mistake here. And he said, I know I shouldn't have done it. I knew as soon as I did, I shouldn't have, but I couldn't let this guy beat up my friend because he was bigger.

Jethro: He just went on about why he had to stand up for this particular friend. And it wasn't like the other times. It would have been really easy to say, too bad that doesn't matter. But because I knew that this young man and I knew his potential, I was able to basically say, it's okay, let's find a way to make it up to that kid and make sure you don't have any more troubles like this. To hear that student finally recognize that he was in the wrong and he was scared, was such an amazing growth experience. I don't think I'll ever forget it because it was so powerful to me.

Daniel: Yeah. I appreciate you sharing that story in regarding the book. I would like to ask you about your Mastermind. Is there anything that we missed that you want to make sure you highlight?

Jethro: I think just one thing that if you are going to change the experience for others, you need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself first, so that you have the time and space to empathize and take care of others as well. I'm not saying that you need to take care of yourself so that you have the energy to take care of others. You need to take care of yourself because you matter as a human being first and foremost, but also you need to get yourself in order. If you are running around, putting out fires every single day, then you're not going to be able to make any meaningful change because all you're doing is reacting. You've got to be proactive and stop putting out fires all the time and start leading.

Daniel: You run a Mastermind like I do, and support school leaders in a community environment. I'd love for you to tell people a bit more of who your ideal Mastermind member is and then where could they find out more and potentially sign up with them?

Jethro: Yeah, that'd be great. So I'm really focusing on helping school leaders, redesign their schools and implement the things that I'm talking about in School X. The people who are best fit for my Mastermind are those who have been a principal for a couple of years. At least they're not like totally overwhelmed with the job and they're starting to get some of those basic things down and now they're ready to start working on redesigning the school. So that's what we really focused on in the Mastermind, is redesigning the school to meet the needs of the kids, parents, and teachers that are in front of you. If that's you and you're interested, you can go to Jethrojones.com/mastermind. If you really want to take your school to the next level and really serve everybody in it and not just put them through a factory system, then the Mastermind is right for you. And that's a Jethrojones.com/mastermind.

Daniel: Beautiful. So I enjoyed this conversation, Jethro on School X and highlighting a bit of your work with school leaders and how you support them through the Mastermind. Thanks for joining me on the better leaders, better schools, podcasts, and everything we talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.

Jethro: The one thing I want you to remember is that if you focus on individuals, you are going to greatly bless their life and greatly improve your life at the same time.

Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud and using the hashtag#BLBS. Level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

Show Highlights

  • Steps to empathize and design education for the individual and not the masses
  • From failure to success with the Design Thinking Process 
  • A big social experiment you need to try 
  • Systems level solutions for year to year personalized transformation
  • Learn to Lose interest on initiatives that don’t fit your visions focus
  • Questions to ask about your Covid-19 plan for your learning community
  • Having an overarching vision people can rally behind to share leadership
Jethro Jones: Designing a Transformative School

“You need to take care of yourself because you matter as a human being first and foremost, but also you need to get yourself in order. If you are running around, putting out fires every single day, then you’re not going to be able to make any meaningful change because all you’re doing is reacting. You’ve got to be proactive and stop putting out fires all the time and start leading.” 

– Jethro Jones



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