Leader2Leader: Deborah Jackson


We spent some time with Deborah Jackson, Mathematics teacher at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, to hear her take on leadership, routine, and more.

Define leadership.

Teachers, individually or collectively, influencing others to improve teaching and learning for students.

Who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?

Linda Comer, my child’s elementary principal. Her focus was on building relationships with all the students.

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?

Being a teacher-leader, you have to first facilitate the increase of student learning and achievement. As an individual teacher, you have to be willing to take some risks.

Sometimes you have to reflect on what you’re doing and think about the ability of your students and the expectations of your students and take a risk. Sometimes, in my curriculum, it says you should go left, but when I look at my students, they’re saying, “No. We need to go right.” So that’s what you have to do. If I err towards the students, then I’m okay, as long as it’s on their behalf.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Trustworthiness allows you to strengthen and to reform and improve not only your students, but the instructional level in the whole building.

(This) allows you to advocate for students. When students trust you, then they trust that what you do is the best on their behalf. If those students are trusting you, then parents (think), “Okay. You’re doing the best for my kids.” It may not always look that way, but if you trust me, then you trust where I’m taking your children.

What’s the biggest challenge that you see facing leaders today?

Sometimes, people don’t realize that teachers are leaders. To me, that’s a challenge that teachers face every day, because you’re leading. If I do something really cool in my room, and then I talk to another teacher about that, that’s an influence and that’s leading the building.

Is there one behavior or trait that you are seeing derail more leaders’ careers?

I’m guilty of this, and I know a lot of teachers in our building are guilty (of) burnout. I really shouldn’t be seeing kids on my lunch. I should be taking that time to have lunch, but I’m eating an apple and helping a child.

It took me a while to realize that I couldn’t save every child that came through, and that sometimes I’m just going to have to chill. In my later years, I have determined (that when) I leave school. I have to set a limit for myself, saying, “You know what? You’ve got to go home. You have a family.”

What do you do for fun?

I like hanging out with my family and friends. In the summer, I like backyard parties. In the winter, I’m not a skier. I’m not an outdoors person. But, I don’t mind being the person that’s got the hot chocolate and cookies ready when everybody comes in.

What’s your “go-to” spot to eat lunch in Southwest Michigan?

Crow’s Nest. I like the turkey sandwich with sweet potato fries.

If happiness were the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?

I love working with middle school children. (In) middle school, you have to be able to know that, from minute to minute, (the students) may change. Today, they may be the first grader, and 30 minutes later, they may want to be the adult in the room. I like middle schoolers and it just makes me happy being with them. I’ve been in this building for 22 years.

If you could go to dinner with three people who would they be?

My husband. Governor Snyder. Reggie Weaver.

What are three things that you cannot travel on business without?

A good book for that downtime to help me relax. My favorite robe, because I’ve got to be warm and cozy and comfortable. FaceTime, because I have a new grandbaby, and every night her mom FaceTimes me so she can get to hear my voice.

Briefcase or backpack?


Who would you most like to meet?

President Obama. He is always so cool under adversity. No matter what or who’s taking a potshot at him, he’s always going high. To me, to have that, it seems like he doesn’t have to breathe.

How do you get your most creative ideas?

I’m looking at my students and reflecting on, “What is it that they need to go to the next level?” My reflection on my teaching and students, and then a lot of prayer.

What inspires you?

My students. Every day. Today I had a student come up to me and say, “Miss Jackson, I need some help.” I was like, “Oh? What are we going to do about it?” He (asked), “Well, can I come in at lunch?” I’m like, “Of course you can!” To me, that’s so inspiring, to have a student come up and say, “I need help and this is the plan.” They amaze me.

What are your daily routines that keep you developing as a leader?

Relationships are really important, so I make decisions and I interact with parents, students, and other teachers and I’m always trying to find that common thread that’s going to have students be the best that they can be.

I’m looking at the data. I’m trying to see, “How can I look at it comprehensively and change what I’m doing to affect what they need?” That’s what I do daily. Every time I’m teaching, I’m looking at kids, and I’m thinking, “Okay. Now I need to do differently.” Sometimes I change from hour to hour, because you have to continue to assess.

What is your favorite leadership book?

John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership.

What’s the app on your phone that you can’t live without?

Snapchat. I have an older granddaughter. She introduced me to Snapchat. I love it. Which (app) would (I) really need? My app for Gmail. If my students are emailing me or if my parents are emailing me, no matter where I am, I can always check my emails and email them back.

How do you maintain your and your team’s daily motivation?

It starts with my belief that all learners can be successful. I’m (our) team leader, so when we sit down in this classroom, we’re thinking about all children being successful (as) we are making our teaching strategies. We’re talking about interventions that we can do that are going to push our kids to learning.

What are you doing to ensure your continued growth as a leader?

I believe that being a leader is about continually learning, and because of that, I’m reading. Last summer, I did a couple of classes. From the time I began teaching to now, children are so different. Whatever is out there that’s new, I need to be a part of it so my students can continue to grow. I’m beginning to have students (who are children) of my former students. I can’t be doing the same thing that I did with them. It’s a different world now.

What excites you most about the future of Southwest Michigan?

Southwest Michigan is continually evolving.

What do you think are the most pressing challenges are facing leaders today and why?

We assess our children too much. When I’m working in my classroom, best practices say that my children should be working in teams and working collaboratively, because that’s what happens in the workplace. Very seldom (do) you work in isolation.

When I assess them, then I’m saying, “Oh, no. I need to know what you know.” When we do state tests, this is all individualized. The assessment is not conducive to what the real world is really asking you to do. I think that’s a pressing challenge for education in general.

What’s one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?

We go in our classroom, close our door, and are too shy (to share): “I had such a good success with this. My kids are knocking it out of the ballpark.” It stays in our room. We should be blasting it from the rooftop, but we don’t always do that.

What is your “Life Quote?”

“Education must not simply teach work—it must teach life.” – W. E. B. Du Bois

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