Jethro was an English Language Arts teacher, library supervisor, and curriculum specialist on his journey to becoming an assistant principal, and then principal (4:00)
The crucial importance of recognizing the struggles so many students deal with on a daily basis and educating the whole child (5:45)
When Jethro knew he wanted to become and educator and the man who inspired him to become a leader in education (6:35)
Working three jobs (including delivering donuts) and having a 45 minute commute while raising a family in order to get his master’s degree (9:25)
Jethro’s darkest time on his path to becoming a principal, and how a particular career book helped him get past it (11:57)
How Jethro’s dream of being a principal helped him keep going during those dark days (17:43)
His main reasons for wanting to become a principal (18:25)
The right way to handle someone’s negative opinions about you (20:04)
How going through that very hard time helped mold him into the leader he is today (22:15)
The best piece of leadership advice Jethro ever received (26:04)
How seeing things differently can be an educator’s biggest strength (26:58)
Jethro’s advice to those educators serving in middle schools (30:20)
The critical importance of helping educators deal with mental “story lines” (31:15)
Why it’s paramount that you have at least one friend or colleague who will give you honest feedback about how others perceive you (33:34)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools recommended in this episode
Scannable by Evernote
Connect with Jethro Jones
And be sure to visit here for your free copy of Top 5 Strategies to Be a Transformative Principal.
And while you’re there, check out Jethro’s podcast.
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Podcast Session #5
How Trials Can Make You a Better Leader
Show notes: educatorslead.com/jethrojones
This is the Educators Lead podcast with Jay Willis, Session #5. Let’s go!
Intro: Jethro Jones is the principal of Kodiak Middle School and the host of the Transformative Principal podcast where he interviews principals, leaders, and influencers who helped improve K- 12 education throughout the world. A father of four, Jethro attended 5 elementary schools, 1 year in a junior high and 3 different high schools. Jethro has always pushed the envelope on learning situations and in Kodiak Middle, he implemented a flexible schedule that allow students to have tier two and tier three interventions and enrichments during the school day. He has provided simple solutions to complex educational problems as a principal, district coach, library supervisor, and middle school teacher. Jethro currently serves as a Region 7 Director for the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals. That was just a brief introduction Jethro, but tell us a little bit about yourself and your career path.
Jethro: You know, I had a non-traditional time in school, and had a non-traditional time as a teacher, also. I graduated from college in English and did not graduate in education so I see things a little bit differently than others. And I’m excited to share that path with you and your listeners today. And thanks for the opportunity to be here.
Jay: Awesome. Well, thanks for being on. So tell us a little bit about your personal life. So you have four kids, that’s got to keep you pretty busy.
Jethro: Yeah they’re four, five, eight and nine. And they are all little bundles of joy and energy and they are a lot of fun. Also, my oldest daughter has Down Syndrome and that has helped me more about compassion and empathy and being an educational leader than probably anything else that I have experienced. Also, we live in Alaska and I just moved up here a year and a half ago. And so I’ve learned to love fishing and I never thought I would enjoy but it’s kind of an addiction now. And when it’s fishing season, I go out whenever I can and try to catch some salmon in the rivers here in Kodiak.
Jay: That’s kind of a pre-requisite right, when you moved up there; you have to decide to like fishing.
Jethro: Pretty much. I don’t think I have a choice.
Jay: Yeah. So that’s interesting. I actually have a special needs child, our son has Muscular Dystrophy. Our nine years old, our oldest, so that’s interesting.
Jethro: My oldest is nine years old also.
Jethro: And she’s the one that has Down Syndrome.
Jay: Right. So tell me a little bit, I know in the introduction, we talked a little bit about your different positions in your career. But if you could kind of elaborate a little bit on that and talked about you know, kind of a path up to school leadership.
Jethro: Yeah. So, I was an English Language Arts Teacher for just 3 years. And being a teacher was a means to an end for me. My desire was to be an administrator from the beginning. Teaching wasn’t really that exciting to me because that’s one of my natural gifts and I’m not saying that to brag. It’s just that comes very easily to me and seeing how to help people understand things is something that I’ve been blessed with so the teaching part wasn’t that exciting to me but leading a group of teachers to be more effective and help students and put kids first has been something that has always been adventurous to me. After I did that our school district in Utah where I was teaching at that time split, and I had an opportunity to be in charge of the libraries for the district. And that was me wanting to taste what it was like to lead a group of people and so I did that for a year and then that position was dissolved. And so I was thankful to get a curriculum specialist position in that district where I worked with English Language Arts Teachers in different schools. I was an external coach for a school and I really enjoyed that and then I was able to be an asst. principal at a Title 1 Elementary School. That taught me a lot about the struggle that our kids face, the importance of trauma informed care and educating the whole child. Not just focusing on reading and math but making sure that we are helping them be good human beings with morals and things that are important and then finally I became the principal of Kodiak Middle School where I am at now. And I’ve got to say, being a principal is I think the best job ever. I just love doing it and it’s a lot of fun. There’s always something new every single day. And it’s a great, great place to be.
Jay: So you, it sounds like you had kind of always known that you wanted to go into school leadership. Was there a specific kind of event or just a time in your life or a point that you made that decision or if so could you take us kind of to that decision point.
Jethro: Yeah, absolutely. So when I was a kid I would always want to be a teacher because I loved helping people learn, and like I said that it came pretty natural to me. And I’ve heard a lot of people describe what teaching is like. And they have, you know, different perspectives and Dave Ramsey describes the best way when he talks about finding someone who has the heart of a teacher. Who wants to help you learn. And I met a man when I was serving an LDS mission in Russia and his name was Philip Rebber and he was also serving a mission there, as a retired man with his wife and this was his 3rd or 4th time going, leaving his family, his grandkids, and serving somebody else in a foreign country. He had been in Georgia and then Russia and Armenia and was just, you know, helping people and he had been a principal and a superintendent and there was something about the way he lived his life and who he was. Where I thought that’s what I need to do. I need to be able to influence a great amount of people as an educational leader, and you can impact teachers lives and you can impact students’ lives in that position. And so I was about 21 when I came back from my mission and I decided that’s what I was going to do. So I took a bunch of different classes in college but meeting him was the one thing that taught me what I wanted to be and how I wanted to have that impact in my life. So I was in Russia, far away from home, and that experience help me learn what I want to do with my life. And now, here I am quite a few years later and doing exactly what I want to be doing and it’s amazing how that all came to pass.
Jay: That’s great. So I know you kind of talked a little bit about the journey but if you could kind of just expound that a little bit. I mean you do have to, so I guess, I mean you kind of knew that you wanted to be a school administrator but I guess, you know what was that path, what would that look like. I mean did you have to take more classes and just kind of expound on that?
Jethro: Yeah. So I needed to get a master’s degree because nobody’s gonna hire you with just a bachelor’s and so I started classes before I even had a teaching job. So I graduated with my bachelor’s in December and then I started classes the following June. And then I start teaching in August and now because I graduated English and not with the teaching degree, I had to take some classes to get a teacher’s certification at the time. So I was working out my masters, working on one of those alternative route classes and I was in my first year of teaching and my first child had just been born. So, life was pretty busy. Plus, because I was a teacher and taking classes, we didn’t have much money and so I needed to work two other jobs. One was writing online and the other one was delivering donuts. And I don’t know how I survived at that time and how I was able to get everything done. But there are times in your life where you really need to hunker down and focus and family life was definitely not in balance at that time. And I was sacrificing a lot to be able to get to the point where I am now. In the end, it was worth it and it was much better that we were sacrificing then when my kids didn’t even know who I was. Much better then than now when my kids are older and may definitely miss me when I’m not around so it was; it was a lot of work to do that. And I had to commute 45 minutes to where I was taking my master’s classes. So there was a lot of, a lot of things that could have prevented me from becoming an administrator. And it would have been really easy to give up but I knew it’s what I wanted. And I knew that it was gonna be worth it in the end and it certainly is. But there were a few dark days when I was like, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it and I just persevered and talked to people and prayed when I needed to and that helped me get to where I wanted to be.
Jay: So, talking about the path to becoming an administrator…in some of those difficult times take us to maybe one of the biggest challenges or one of the most difficult times in that journey. If you could, actually just tell us that story and when that happened.
Jethro: Yeah. So that actually happened not too long ago. And it’s one thing to becomian administrator and be an assistant principal. And it’s another thing to become an actual principal and you know every time you go through finding a job that rejection and inability to get a job is difficult and hard and painful and for me was the really difficult time, and I say this because this is when I was really affected by it. And it was when I became depressed and became not confident in my abilities to do things that I wanted to.
So I was working as an assistant principal just before I got this job and my principal told me – I’d asked her to write me a letter of recommendation and she didn’t write me one, didn’t write me one, and then she said finally when I was like, hey its time, I need really need this, so I can start applying. She said, “Well, you know I haven’t written it yet because I need to give you some feedback and I just don’t think that you are ready to be a principal of even an elementary school, you need to go and get a job as an asst. principal in a middle school and keep working.” Which, like crushed me. I thought that she had my back and was supporting me and it turns out that she didn’t think that I was ready. What was really hard was that made me feel like, if she thinks this then probably everybody else does, and here I was thinking things are going well and they’re not. My former principal was in a leadership position in the district that I worked in and I asked him what other people thought of me and why I was getting passed over for this principal job that I’ve been applying for the last two years. And he said that people perceived me as cocky and arrogant. And that I acted like I always have the answer. And I really felt like that was not accurate but also I didn’t know what I was doing to make people feel like that.
So then I got, it was like she gave me a right hook, he gave me a left hook, and then I interviewed out of state for principal position and the superintendent gave me feedback after that and he said that I came across as a know-it-all and that I wasn’t really a good fit for their school because of that. So that was like the uppercut. And at this point, I was like I know that this is what I wanted to do. This is my life’s mission and I need to get going on it because I’m not getting any younger and I want to do what I want to do. And it was just, it was really hard and there were many days where I felt like a complete and total failure and it was very difficult. I spent a lot of time praying and trying to figure out how I could improve. And going back to my words and trying to figure out what was really been official and I heard about this thing called the Strengths Finder Test, which is what a lot of entrepreneurs do to figure out what their strength is and how they can run a better business.
And so I took the Strengths Finder Test and actually helped me communicate the things that I was good at without sounding like a jerk who has all the answers and knows everything, because I certainly don’t, I mean come on. So, anyway, that was the darkest moment. All the other times like not having enough experience, being too young, not having people taking me seriously, all until then had never gotten to me, but this time it did and it was my darkest time as an adult that I can think of. It was very difficult to overcome when everybody is telling you, “No, you can’t do this”, and it seems like nobody has faith in you. So you know I’m sure that there is a group of people who say, ”Yeah he had gone away to Alaska to find someone who would take him.” And you know, that’s not how I see it. However, what I have to realize was that I needed to be willing to go to a place where my skills would be accepted, and my superintendent who hired me here said, “You know, we need someone at the school who is going to be cocky and arrogant”, and I said, “I’ll be a good fit.”
Jay: That’s great. So how did you get, how did you get through that? I mean what, I can’t imagine if you, not just one but three different people that I had a lot of respect for at the moment, or you know before that conversation. How did you handle that and how did you, I mean, like what did you do to overcome it?
Jethro: So for me personally, it was really about faith and knowing that I believe that God has called me to be in a position like this, and has set things up to help me be successful, so I believe that that had a large part to do with it. In addition to that, I needed to go back and really understand why I was doing the things that I was doing. I needed to understand why I wanted to be an administrator. And really focus on that and it wasn’t just for the money or for the you know; being able to be “the one in charge.” It was really about being able to impact teachers and students lives and make a place that everybody wanted to be at and be able to create a school where kids want to come and teachers want to work. And it basically just took a lot of me sitting up at night and thinking about those things and visualizing myself doing those things. And then finding whatever other resources I could to help me find a way to improve, so the Strengths Finder book that had told me what my strengths were and why they were important. Reading scriptures that help me see my values as human being was not tied to my job was a big part of the plan as I had been tying my value to what I was doing as an asst. principal. And that’s not a healthy place to be. You have to have value outside of that and I’ve put too much stock in what I was doing professionally and not realizing that there’s a lot more to me than what I do as a professional. And you know that, that’s an important thing to remember.
Jay: I know for me personally some of my greatest successes really wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for some of my greatest failures. So, what would you say from that experience, what were some of the biggest lessons that you came away with?
Jethro: So I think one of the biggest lessons is you need to listen to what other people say, but you need to realize also that that’s just their opinion, that’s not the truth with a capital T. So, other people perceived me and thought of me in that certain way but that wasn’t all there was. There’s more to the story. And what I needed to learn was how do I communicate in a way that honors the people that are there and respects what they are doing without stepping on their toes. And my current superintendent has a good way of describing it. He said when I came up here, “You need to realize that there’s a whole story about this school before you got here. Your chapter 1 in this book is not the chapter 1 of everybody else. So you’re coming in on their chapter 50 and you’re just on chapter 1. So you need to honor the previous chapters and their story.” And I feel like that could have been one of my problems before is that people acted like I have or thought I have all the answers because I do have an answer for everything, and the way I worked through things is by talking about them. So when I suggest an idea that’s my best idea at the moment but I’m willing to change and bend and move. And this is one of the things that I had to learn, was how to suggest an idea without it sounding like this is the only idea that we can do without it sounding like this is the only option, but instead, this is an option because that’s actually how I see it. And the way I spoke and how I carried myself made people think that that was how they should see it too.
Jay: So do you think that you would be as effective as you are as a leader now if it hadn’t been for that experience?
Jethro: Absolutely not. I mean, every change and difficult thing you go through helps build who you are as a person and it shapes who you are. Earlier I talked about my daughter being born with Down Syndrome and dealing with that, and how that has made me more empathetic. And people always say, like, “Oh, you’re amazing for having a child with a disability and I could never do that”, and the truth is, and you know Jay, you can do it because you have to do it and you don’t really have a choice.
Jethro: So whenever we go through trials that always make us better, if we are willing to learn from them and that’s one of the things that my faith definitely forms. And I have an overall belief that we’re here on earth to improve and become better so every chance we get to learn and grow we should take advantage of. But then also, every negative thing that happens to us can be seen as a growth opportunity to help us learn and grow faster and better and so I pray for those opportunities. I relish those opportunities. Moving out to Alaska was part of a bigger plan to force my wife and I and our family to go through some difficult things and challenges to make us better people; moving away from our family, moving to an island in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska. It’s definitely a different experience and I’m grateful for it because it made me a better person; going through these trials has definitely made me a better leader because I can, I can empathize with people. I can speak with more confidence to them and say things like, this is, and this is my perception, this isn’t everything. And then when people get discouraged about how they are performing, it’s easy for me to remind them that that this is not all that they are; they are much more than this. And they should not let struggling in this position be a definition of who they are. And then when people aren’t successful in teaching then it’s a lot easier to say, “You know, this isn’t for you and I need to help counsel you out of this by saying it’s plainly not your strength, and go find something that plays to your strengths and do that and you’ll be a lot happier and that be a lot better for you.”
Jay: Yeah. You know it’s just talking about special needs it; it is funny, I feel like you do rise to what you need to, I mean, if circumstances are thrown at you. You will, you know most of us are, going to rise to the occasion and while I certainly would never choose circumstances like what we have with a special needs child, at the same time it gives you a perspective and insight and then, say, a depth of character in some ways that you wouldn’t have otherwise. So even though it wouldn’t be something you choose, there are some benefits that come through that experience.
Jethro: Yeah. Absolutely; lots of benefits. I think way more benefits than negatives in almost every situation and you know, I’m sure … in every trial I’ve been through, I’ve grown way more than I thought I would and became a better person because of that.
Jay: So let’s get into our rapid fire questions. I have a few questions if you’re ready for those?
Jethro: Yes, sir.
Jay: Alright, so what is the best leadership advice that you’ve ever received?
Jethro: So when I was on a mission, the mission president told me there will always be about a third of the people that you lead that love you to death, a third that don’t really care either way and just do their jobs, and about a third that hate you and criticize every move you make, and he said don’t worry about the bottom one third. Don’t try to please them; just do your best to ignore their nitpicking and move on with what you’re doing. That has rung nearly true. Wat that really means is that there will always be somebody who doesn’t like what you’re doing and don’t pay much attention to them.
Jay: What would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Jethro: I would say that I see things differently than a lot of other educators. In that Strengths Finder thing I talked about before, two of my strengths are strategic and futuristic which means that I’m strategic in how I do things and I’m futuristic in that I look to the future and see things differently than others. So, those two things make me have crazy ideas a lot of the time and most educators do not like crazy ideas, they’re rule followers and focused, but my ideas are crazy but they often work out OK and when they don’t then I just deal with it and move on.
Jay: Yeah. What one or two books would you most recommend to other school leaders?
Jethro: So, the first one is Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, which takes place in Victorian England and it’s about education and a guy, Nicholas Nickleby, who goes through the education system over there. It’s just fascinating and Charles Dickens is an amazing writer and nobody has read that book. So I always recommend that one. The second one is EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey, and that is a great book because it helps people learn about different ways to lead the organizations and really it’s about leading people – not entrepreneurs, not businesses, or schools in general, but just leading people.
Jay: Yeah, it’s a great book. What is an app or software type tool that you would recommend to other school leaders?
Jethro: I think I’m gonna go with Scannable by Evernote, which is just an amazing app. You hold your phone up to a piece of paper and it takes a picture of it, turns it into a PDF that you can then send off and, like many other principals I’m sure, we have to fill out papers and sign things and snap a picture and send it off and it is super easy and it cuts out the edges perfectly. It makes it look good even if you get it like off tilted. It likes straighten it all out. It’s just amazing.
Jay: I have to check that out. I took a picture of a contract last night and it’s probably not gonna turn out that great so I have to check out Scannable.
Jethro: You gonna like it; it’s gonna blow your mind.
Jay: Yeah, what would you say is your favorite educational quote?
Jethro: So, I don’t know if this is an educational quote or not but I believe it is by Abraham Lincoln, and if it wasn’t, then whoever said it was brilliant. And it’s, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re probably right.”
Jay: Looks great. I think Henry Ford might be attributed to that one as well. I’m not sure about that. But it may be Abraham Lincoln who said that.
Jay: What advice would you have for working with the student population that you serve?
Jethro: So I took this question as working with the group of kids that you’re working with and whether you’re talking about demographics or just the age group, I wasn’t sure, so I’m going with age group. Get to know them and their interests. For me, at the middle school, I need to be watching Vines. Know what that thing looks like. And download the games that they play onto my phone so that when kids are playing Smashy Road or something, I can go see what they are doing. And pull out my phone and say, “Oh, this is my high score and do you have this car yet, that sounds pretty cool?” That really goes a long way for them to be like, “Wait a minute – does this guy know what I’m talking about?” And they could trust you a little bit better.
Jay: Yeah. That’s great. What piece of advice you have for working with the educators that you lead, like the other teachers?
Jethro: I would say, teach them about story lines. It will change your life forever, totally guaranteed. I’ll give you a brief 30 second brief description of what a story line is. We all have these things that go on in our heads where we think that person is mad at me for this reason because they looked at me funny, or that person…whatever. en those happen, they can create story lines that just fester, so what I do with my teachers and students and staff is, I have a little card on my door that says, “I have a story line” and somebody brings that to me and says, “I have a story line”, that’s my cue, to listen, be empathetic, and wait for them to describe what’s going on so that I can tell them if they are right or not. 99% of the time, they are wrong. And those story lines are crazy and I wasn’t mad at them about something. But they have that story line that makes it hard for us to communicate. When they tell me their story line, I can resolve the concern and we can move on with our life and it doesn’t have to be a bother. And it’s amazing. Every time I do that with somebody, we grow closer, do better, and it’s awesome.
Jay: Now, is this something you picked up in a book, or is there a resource that people could look into that would kind of tell them a little more about that process?
Jethro: I would look at my website jethrojones.com and search for story lines. I’ve learned about it over time and then I’ve developed some communication cards that I put on my door that help people understand. Send me a message on Twitter if you want to hear more, because I’ll definitely help you out.
Jay: Yeah, it’s a great idea. What’s the best way to connect with you? You mentioned your website, is that pretty much the best way?
Jethro: Yup. jethrojones.com. I’m also on twitter @jethrojones. My phone is 801- 7JETHRO so feel free to call me. But if you go to jethrojones.com/educatorslead, I’ll give you the top things the transformative principals do which was just basically the completion of what I’ve learned from doing hundreds of episodes from my podcasts, Transformative Principal.
Jay: That’s great. Thank you for that freebie for our listeners. I appreciate that. So, what final piece of advice would you have for a school administrator or someone who wants to become a school administrator one day?
Jethro: I’m gonna take this from my personal story for struggling to get a job as a principal. Ask someone what others think of you and make sure that they’re being honest. Don’t let them get away with saying, “Oh no, everybody thinks you’re great”. Get the dirt on yourself so that you can rise above it. And make your life better.
Jay: Awesome. Edu-leaders, this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word jethro into the search tool to find his show notes. Jethro, thank you for sharing your journey with us today! And that represents another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders weekly to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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