Principal Andy M. Jacks: “Why class size reduction is a key ingredient to improving our schools”

Yitzi Weiner
Mar 30 · 10 min read
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As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Principal Andy M. Jacks.

Dr. Andy Jacks is a national leader and speaker of school innovation and reform. Andy is the principal of the award-winning Ashland Elementary School in Northern Virginia, widely known for its engaging and innovative school culture. Their efforts have received local and national recognition including Nationally Distinguished Principal, Virginia Principal of the Year, School Bell Award, State Excellence Award, Business Partnership of the Year, and a visit by U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Andy is an NAESP Fellow leading the Center for Innovative Leadership which pulls in leadership lessons from principals across the country to empower others to create positive changes in their schools. Andy also serves on the Autism Society of Northern Virginia’s Board of Directors providing support for thousands of families affected by autism in the region.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Dr. Jacks! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Recently a parent asked me after an event, “When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?” I was sort of taken aback, but I reflected for a moment and said that as a child, I was all over the place, probably wanted to do it all, firefighter, police officer, lawyer, you name it. She then replied with a comment I’ll never forget saying, “Well I think you’re doing exactly what you were meant to do. You were called to be a principal.” I thought that was the absolute best compliment ever. I didn’t go into education to be a principal. My inspiration and introduction to school leadership was my first principal who took a chance on me as a teacher, Bill Hutchinson. He sat me down in my first year of teaching and said, “Don’t wait, go get your degree now!” I’ll never forget how the staff loved him and how well connected he was to them. I still have a poster in my office that he handed down to me from his office when he retired. He passed, unfortunately, but on the very day I found out that I was hired to be a principal like him. I think he’s still watching and guiding me to this day ten years later.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your school?

I take our staff on surprise field trips every year on the first day back from summer break. One year we rented out the Potomac Nationals Minor League Baseball stadium. We had their official announcer call the staff onto the field and even had batting practice. The whole experience was surreal, and it was so much fun for our team to start the school year this way.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first became a principal, I thought that I was supposed to look important and have a serious and formal office. I wore ties, bought a big wooden desk with formal chairs, and thought the answers to leadership were all about looking like a leader. Wow was I wrong? The problem was that every time I met with teachers or parents, I would walk around the desk to sit at the chairs with them, every time, over and over. I started realizing that the desk itself was a massive barrier when forming relationships. I’ve since removed the big executive desk and now just have a dining room-style table and chairs to make it warm and inviting. I’ve learned that leadership isn’t about appearance, it’s about relationships.

Can you describe how you and your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our goal at Ashland is for the success of every single child no matter their abilities or their background. Success, though, means many different things for our students. For some students, it’s academic, for others it may be walking for the first time. Many of our students require support and instruction for basic needs that are outside typical academic instruction. We firmly believe in teaching and supporting the whole child, such as helping students that are overwhelmed based on sensory issues. This can really impede them from going to the barbershop or salon and sit for a haircut. To better support and ultimately teach them this new skill, we started a program with Bubbles Salon to have them come to us and provide our students with sensory-friendly haircuts in school each month. We have seen significant improvements in all the students involved with not only the haircut itself but their confidence as well. These examples need to be shared so that our national community understands the real role of public education for our society.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

We started this program because a parent asked us where and how to get a haircut for their child who has autism. Their child had major difficulties in the past and the family gave up on trying to have his hair cut. Since we started this program, this same child has come such a long way and is now able to sit, not feel overwhelmed, and receive monthly haircuts with us in school. This has seriously changed his life around. Every child deserves to look good with a great haircut.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Class size reduction is a key ingredient to improving our schools. Reducing class sizes alone will not dramatically change things, but having rooms completely packed with students, all vying for the attention and love of the teacher, creates an enormous challenge for educators. The most important thing for teachers is to make positive and meaningful relationships with their students, but this is increasingly difficult as teachers have to instruct a large number of students. Our school board, superintendent, and community advocate for this as a high priority and we appreciate their continued support.

Schools need to be redesigned using principal and teacher input to align with the needs of our students and the format of modern instruction. Some of these changes can be made now, like removing fixed computer desktop centers and replacing them with mobile devices that students can use at their seats. Going forward, schools need to remodeled and created with the whole child in mind and the many services that we now provide.

Equity in education across this country needs to be addressed with as much emphasis as any other national crisis. The quality of education in America should not be determined by the zip code you were born in. The luck of the draw should not limit your opportunities, especially in a country as rich and powerful as ours. We have schools with students and teachers that are barely keeping a roof over their heads, yet we expect them to overcome these obstacles and pass state exams at the same rate as everyone else. With the billions we spend on other priorities, we need to refocus and redouble our efforts to instead better provide for the future of all our citizens.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leaders lead. Not just some of the time, but all the time. Leaders are always being watched and their actions and attitudes convey to the entire organization. There is a saying in education, that if the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. As a principal, we must be so conscious of how our words, emotions, and actions influence those around us all day long, every day of the year. I look at this challenge as an opportunity to help inspire others every day. I hate missing work even for a day, because that may be the day a student needed me the most.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Lead with conviction and passion, but highly focused on the few things that really matter. It’s critical that leaders know their bottom-line core values. The clearer we are with these in our own mind, the better we will be able to articulate them with others. I wish someone would have helped me to nail these down more at first and be very selective with school changes based on those values.
  • Don’t assume trust. Trust must be earned and that takes time. In fact, it’s something that needs to be continually worked on. One of the ways to gain trust is to find out what people need and then go get it for them, the faster the better. When I first started as principal, everyone felt that I trusted them and of course, I expected that they should trust me. The problem is that we didn’t know or feel the other person’s background or experiences that are needed to build meaningful relationships. I think I should have just been clear to everyone, for instance, “As we start this journey together, of course, we don’t have trust…yet. But we will, and we will all need to work on this together.”
  • Set your priorities on your daily and weekly calendar. If it’s important to you, you must turn these goals into tasks that can be completed every day or every week. Forward progress is guaranteed if you do this.
  • The colors in the cells of your spreadsheet do not matter. I have spent a lot of time being too much of a perfectionist with spreadsheets and forms. There was one day that I was sitting at my desk in my office, fixing the cell colors when I came across a specific student’s name. I realized at that moment, that instead of working on this spreadsheet, I should go walk down and spend time with that student. The names in the spreadsheet always matter more than the spreadsheet itself.
  • Leaders need to have fun. The tough parts of the job come in waves and can really knock you down. Leaders need to proactively set up times for fun and for growing authentic relationships. If we don’t build up in the easy times, we won’t be ready for the tough times. It’s too late to come together as a team when the going gets tough, we need to already be united by then.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As a parent of a child with autism, I think we need professional learning experiences for every teacher and administrator to better understand this disability, sensory issues in general, and what we can do to help. Many of the issues we have are based on a lack of awareness and understanding. Teachers are not necessarily prepared for many of the challenges that come their way and it’s not their fault. Teachers are doing the best they can and go into the profession with their hearts on their sleeves. We need to give them the tools and skills to help them instruct all students such as these.

Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you treat people as they are, you make them worse. If you treat people as they ought to be, you help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Haim Ginott

Our view of others makes an enormous difference in how we treat them and the decisions we make. We need to look at our colleagues, our employees, and in school, our students, as the best possible version of themselves. As leaders, this helps us with staff to inspire instead of requiring and motivate instead of a mandate. We are full of hope for what we can achieve together. With students, this means we can set high expectations. We know that every child is so capable and good. We care about them as individuals and want them to be highly successful.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Colin Powell. Calm, cool, and wise. He is such a great role model for us all on how to carry ourselves and treat others. I would love to pick his brain on how to effectively lead and inspire. We have a lot of military-connected families at Ashland and they have taught me so much about leadership and service. Those that have served such as Colin Powell at the highest level of the military are such an inspiration.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on Twitter @_AndyJacks and learn more on my website

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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