Finding Our Way Together: An Interview With Dr. Janice Jackson
by Lisa Sankowski, Circle of Trust Facilitator
The pace has been different for Janice Jackson this fall. Taking a break from teaching during the first semester, she’s had time to dedicate to her research. “I’m focusing on helping school districts develop an effective approach to teaching, because pretty much, either every school does what it wants, and every classroom does what it wants, or people come down very hard and say, ‘Everybody’s going to do exactly this.’ There’s got to be some middle ground. It’s my life’s work to develop leaders who look for the third way.” Janice is well positioned to undertake this work. Her career spans the educational system in the U.S. at every level. Currently a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Janice began her career as a middle school teacher in a Catholic school in Milwaukee.
After serving in leadership roles in Milwaukee and San Diego, Janice became Deputy Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, and during the first term of the Clinton Administration, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. Janice also consults to school systems working to bridge the gap between research and practice.
Janice’s experience with Courage to Teach® also informs her interest in—and understanding of—this elusive middle ground. Janice and twenty-four fellow educators participated in the Courage to Teach retreat series facilitated by Pamela Seigle and Chip Wood in 1999-2001 at Wellesley College, and Janice credits this experience with a profound contribution to her understanding of herself and her work.
“Parker Palmer’s work has influenced me tremendously. He’s thinking about the world in a different way. He’s thinking deeply about a sense of purpose. He’s thinking about connection beyond the familiar."
A willingness to move beyond the familiar is woven deeply into Janice’s teaching as well as her research. This semester, she is returning to the classroom at HGSE to teach Controversies in Education. “This is an example of how learning to listen differently in Courage to Teach strongly influenced me. This course is about helping students understand that there are all sorts of controversies that show up at the schoolhouse door. In this class, I help students think about what their core values are and where they stand. And then we learn to listen to other people from the way they mean it, not the way we hear it. Taking perspective like that is a very difficult thing. Once you can say, ‘OK, I understand you, not through my own filter, but in the way you want to be understood,’ then you can say, ‘now how do we take what you’re interested in and what I’m interested in and find a third way?’ We all bump into each other, so you’ve got to know who you are, and you’ve got to let your being who you are not in any way denigrate others. Students don’t want to be pushed to look beyond their comfort zone, but when you’re out in the real world, when you’re working on behalf of the kids, you better stand up. Self-discovery, self-acceptance, the desire to grow and get better, are critical for leaders. I don’t know how you lead without that. Well, I do know how you lead—you don’t lead well.”
Janice also credits Courage to Teach with helping her appreciate that she’s not alone in this work. Recalling her experience of the Clearness Committee in particular, Janice says, “I remember having this incredibly powerful experience. It reminded me of the importance of being part of community, of understanding that while the answers are in here, sometimes you need other people to help you pull them out. And when things get crazy, even though we’re not seeing each other, the people from my circle are there.”
When asked what she thinks Courage to Teach has to offer educators, she responds, “The first thing is ‘know yourself.’ So many people walk into roles in education not knowing what their values are. They haven’t realized that this isn’t just a job. This is really important work about shaping the world.”
The second thing it offers is courage. “We’re in this incredible moment of transformation about who we are as a people. I think of that globally, not just in the United States. What’s the next stage going to be for humankind? We need to go back and think about the common good. And ‘common’ means beyond the people we see every day. We need to be equally thoughtful about the neighbor we see and the neighbor we don’t. President Obama can’t do it alone. Each of us, in the places where we have power and influence, needs to step up and have integrity and courage. In education, there are things that will need to be said and done, and there are folks who will not appreciate that you say or do them, but you have to say and do them anyway. Now they grumble in the teachers’ room, but we need the courage that will help people say, ‘You know what? Collectively we can figure it out. And that means I have to be honest with my peers.’ We have to have the courage to think outside the box and keep the kids at the center of what we’re doing. I think the biggest thing for me is, don’t let the courage wane.”
What keeps Janice’s courage from waning? “I think of a Teddy Kennedy who was, in the living of his early life, a tragic figure, but he redeemed himself and fought for the underdog no matter what. I hold the poem The Woodcarver in my heart because it calls us to look for giftedness everywhere, and that’s not just giftedness in the kids—it’s giftedness in the people with whom we work; I just have to do the personal work that allows me to see it when it shows up. I also know it’s going to be hard work, but I’m not scared of hard work. You put your shoulders down and keep pushing, and every now and then you look up at the sun, and then sometimes you look down and see the most exquisite flowers.
“And especially I think of the involvement of young people in the last election, whether they were for Obama, McCain, whatever. There were a lot of young people who were engaged this time. Somehow or another we’ve got to sustain that energy and keep them in the process. That makes me hopeful.”