Podcast S2. Ep 5: Educators are put on this Planet to Save Lives - Dr. Andy Jacks

Character Strong · September 15, 2019

Dr. Andy Jacks has a passion for the success of every single child ensuing that school is a place filled with meaningful relationships and support for even the most at-risk students. Andy is the principal of the award-winning Ashland Elementary School in Northern Virginia where they have skyrocketed student achievement and created a unique school culture that even brought the U.S. Secretary of Education there for a tour. Andy also serves on the Autism Society of Northern Virginia Board of Directors and is an NAESP Fellow leading the Center for Innovative Leadership. Andy and his school have received various local and national recognition including Nationally Distinguished Principal, Virginia Principal of the Year, School Bell Award, State Excellence Award, and Business Partnership of the Year. Connect with him at andyjacks.co or on Twitter @_AndyJacks.

We talk about some of the moves that skyrocketed student achievement at Ashland Elementary, how he is leading with the Center for Innovative Leadership, and the important role that educators have & the responsibility that comes with that. 


“... it's something we've tried really hard with this center, is to really sort of identify those key decision points or strategies. Not so much the how to, but more along the lines of, what were you thinking when you decided to do this, or why did you do this? What was the impact of that? To give more of a behind the scenes look as to how principals are, you could say, changing the game, or you could say, doing things different, or disrupting the norm. There's all these things you could say about it, but the reality is, principals are change agents.”

— Andy Jacks

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Dr. Andy Jax. Andy has a passion for the success of every single child, ensuring that school is a place filled with meaningful relationships and support for even the most at risk students.
  • John: Andy is the principal of the award-winning Ashland Elementary School in Northern Virginia, where they have skyrocketed student achievement and created a unique school culture that even brought the US Secretary of Education there for a tour. Andy also serves on the Autism Society of Northern Virginia board of directors, and is an NAESP fellow, leading the Center for Innovative Leadership.
  • John: Andy and his school have received various local and national recognition, including nationally distinguished principal, Virginia principal of the year, School Bell Award, State Excellence Award, and business partnership of the year. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Dr. Andy Jax.
  • John: All right. It is so exciting to have Dr. Andy Jax on the CharacterStrong Podcast with us today. How are you doing today?
  • Andy: I'm doing great. Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
  • John: So Andy, you're the principal of the award-winning Ashland Elementary School in Northern Virginia. You're involved in a lot of different things. I first saw you on Twitter, and am just grateful for not only the work you're doing, but your approach to it, the passion that you have for it, and so, I'm just incredibly honored to have you with us.
  • John: And I just kind of had two areas that I'd love to just dig in with you today. One, I noticed, pretty active this summer, things that were happening around one of the pieces you're a part of, which is the NAESP. You're a fellow leading the Center for Innovative Leadership. Could you talk a little bit about the work that you're doing with that?
  • Andy: Absolutely. And again, thanks for having me on. Hamish Brewer and I were asked by Dr. Frank, who's in charge of the NAESP, to create a different take on connecting principals across the country. NAESP prides themselves on empowering principals, connecting principals, informing them, advocating for them. And one unique way that we wanted to do that was by Hamish and I having interviews, and sort of pulling out the nuance of the job.
  • Andy: And so it's something we've tried really hard with this center, is to really sort of identify those key decision points or strategies. Not so much the how to, but more along the lines of, what were you thinking when you decided to do this, or why did you do this? What was the impact of that? To give more of a behind the scenes look as to how principals are, you could say, changing the game, or you could say, doing things different, or disrupting the norm. There's all these things you could say about it, but the reality is, principals are change agents.
  • Andy: Every day, we're making positive change in schools. We should be, anyways. And it's not just like one day, we're innovative in one way. Really, we're innovative in a million different ways all throughout the year. And we were inspired right away by talking to principals who didn't realize that they were innovative, or may have thought, "Maybe I'm not innovative."
  • Andy: And we tried to empower them by realizing that we are all very innovative, because as school leaders, we're constantly trying to find new and unique ways to either reach out to our community, or to increase performance, or you know, all sorts of different aspects of the school based on what the needs of the school are.
  • Andy: And so, we've had a lot of fun talking to principals about how they've created. One principal made a chicken coop, because it really could find out the whole life cycle of animals, and all that. One principal built this amazing learning garden structure right out in front of the school. Other principals were getting the voice of students in their building and sort of empowering their community that was an at risk community.
  • Andy: And the passion that you could hear from these principals is very contagious. And even in the summer, at the summer conference for NAESP, we had just people from the crowd, we said, "Who wants to share how they're being innovative in their schools?" And we can pull up four people, and each one of them would have an amazing story about one way they're being innovative in their school. And other people in the crowd are just like, "Man, that's cool. Here we go. I'll take another note."
  • Andy: And these quick little takeaways, much like what you're doing in this series with your podcast, trying to get a little kernel of, again, sort of behind the scenes, why did you do what you did? Because you could, you can read about, sort of, the how to steps, but sometimes the, again, the nuance of the job is where these, the real change kind of happens.
  • John: Absolutely. And we can get so bogged down by the nuances of the job that not only are those kernels, ideas that can spark other ideas so important, but I just think about the passion that's behind them. When you hear someone telling that story, when you see, whether it be on social media or through some of these videos or whatever it might be that you're coming out, that excitement and energy of people who are in the same position, how important that is.
  • John: Because it is so easy to get into that gauntlet. Right? And then sometimes, just bringing your head up for air every once in a while, and being like, "Okay, yes, I need to be reconnected with why I'm doing this in the first place." The same thing that teachers, everybody in education, I'm sure, is dealing with regularly.
  • John: So, how about this, to transition that, because it's going to go into my next question, but first of all, where could people access or find more of the videos and the different things that you're doing as a part of that series?
  • Andy: Sure. So go to the NAESP website. So, if you go to naesp.org/cil, and that is where our sort of main hub is for the Center for Innovative Leadership. And from there, we have podcasts as well as videos, interviews, as well as they make all the videos into blog posts with takeaways.
  • Andy: And then we put writings into their magazines. We do other things besides that. We do Twitter, we're doing another Twitter chat in September that we'll be leading. And so we try to just engage people. So to your point, exactly, you have no excuse in the nowadays' connected world that we live in to not find inspiration. It's not how it used to be, where if you didn't have somebody nearby that you could really kind of latch on with, you were just kind of stuck. But nowadays, you need to find where you're going to get inspiration, and what are you taking in?
  • Andy: Are you taking in negative things from people, or are you taking in positive things that are helping to encourage you and inspire you? And those are your choices. You have to realize that's a choice you make, and then you can take action and control on sort of your own destiny of your positive attitude. Because being positive in this job is everything.
  • Andy: If you get that negative Nelly attitude of things, you're going to crash and burn. And again, so many principals and school leaders and teachers, everybody feels like all of this is sort of out of my control. All these influences come to me and affect me, when the reality is, you can dictate a lot of that around you if you're aware of kind of what's coming into you.
  • John: Yeah, I was just talking today. Because what you just hit on, I remember, I think it's a John Maxwell piece. He calls it the law of the lid, and it's like, so, thinking about it through the lens of a principal, don't ever expect staff to bring more, right, to the school on a daily basis than you're bringing as the principal, right? If you're the leader.
  • John: So as a teacher, don't ever expect students to bring more to the room than when I'm bringing as a teacher. And so that attitude, that mindset piece is so huge, and yet you're so right. We are so connected now that it is not hard. I am more connected to finding people like yourself and Hamish, like you mentioned. In fact, I can't wait to see some of those videos, because I loved hearing the story.

“I believe that educators are put on this planet to save lives. When you look at a student in front of you, you're there to change the trajectory of their life forever.”

— Andy Jacks


  • John: I think you wrote the introduction to his book, and hearing just early on in the book about how you were at, I think it might've been NAESP, and you were having a conversation, and just how you were like, "We're going to disrupt the norm, and we're going to dig in." So I'd love to see just even your interactions and conversations while talking about the work would be a fun thing for people to listen to and watch.
  • John: Well, how about this, the podcast is shorter in nature, so maybe we could close it out with this. You obviously have been doing impactful work. And so what would you say to leave people with some practical things to think about, to challenge, whatever it might be, but what would you say are maybe three of the most important moves that you made to skyrocket student achievement, which you have had happen at your school, that created such a unique school culture that it even brought out the US Secretary of Education to take a tour of your school? So share with people, what are maybe three moves that you made, that you think were key to that success?
  • Andy: The first thing is, it's about the students, flat out. You have to know what your bottom line is. We are trying to make every single student successful in our school. You know, I don't believe in these sort of smart goals of, you know, if 85% this year or pass, whatever, pass rate, we don't have that in our school. We have 100% pass rates on all of our growth plans, all of those kind of typical things that teachers and administrators have.
  • Andy: We just 100%. We're trying to get every single child. We're not happy unless we get every single one. Because you know what? Forget about the test. Forget about if you like testing or not testing. If that child's going to have to take that test, how are they going to feel after that test and they see the results? Are they going to feel better or worse based on that year?
  • Andy: It is our job to make them feel successful, make them ... Because if they're successful, then they're happy in school. They're enjoying their experience. And you can't say, "Well, I just want the kid to be happy. It doesn't really matter about the test." Well, the test matters because it's all part of that package to help this child be successful and grow and achieve and those kinds of things.
  • Andy: So, bottom line is, you have to find ways to connect with every single student you know, and you've got to forget about all these spreadsheets. We do these systems and processes. Those things are important, but they're not the bottom line. The kids are the bottom line. So the color of the cells in your spreadsheet don't matter as much as the student's name inside that cell, right? Make sure-
  • John: That's a tweet, by the way, right there. That is a powerful tweet right there. You probably have tweeted it, but you need to tweet that today.
  • Andy: Yeah, yeah. Make sure that you're not sitting at your desk looking at the colors of the cells, deciding how that's going to be formulated. You know what? Get out of your seat and go talk to that student and go hug that student. Build a relationship with that student. And it's all about these individual relationships where you're going to do everything you possibly can.
  • Andy: I've done the craziest things for kids, and half of that time, that's the best part of my job and the best memories I have is when I know that I'm doing literally every single thing I possibly can for a child. And that's completely contagious across the school. So one other key factor is knowing your school, and knowing what people want, and knowing your community.
  • Andy: So school leaders, we sort of have this push up, this is my vision, and these are the things that I want to do, and these are the programs I think are important. Well, I did that at first, and it didn't work so well. We made some gains. Our real gains, where we're getting 100% pass rates is where we have the team, the teachers, deciding.
  • Andy: I have a green light in my office. I have this stoplight. Red, yellow, green. And it's always on green, because I took the red and yellow bulbs out, and the teachers have this autonomy to make decisions, and take risks, because there's responsibility behind those risks. And for our community, we have to really understand what makes up our community, what their needs are so that we can gear our programs and our supports towards that.
  • Andy: One of the ways we did that is with our military connected families, and so I was able to explain what we doing to the Department of Education in Washington DC, and because of what we were talking about, how we support our families, they wanted to come out and see that firsthand with the Secretary of Education.
  • Andy: And so the best part about her visit was afterwards, when she said, "It just feels really amazing here. You can just sense the difference in this school, because it's all about that school culture, and how you make people feel."
  • John: Yeah, we talk about that in our trainings, that really, when you think about it, we throw around terms like culture and climate quite a bit, but we aren't always talking about the same kind of thing. And so in our trainings, a lot of times, we'll simplify and say, "You really could look at culture as behavior, climate as a feeling." So whose behavior is culture? Not just the students, but the staff, right? It's how people actually behave repeatedly individually. Right?
  • John: Climate, though, is that feeling, and we can't always determine every single moment how the place feels or a classroom. Sometimes a school climate can take a big hit. Something happens that drastically impacts the school climate. Yet, by paying attention to the overall school culture, what you're going to get is an overall school climate, right, and your school climate overall is earned, positive or negative, good or bad.
  • John: Right? And the best school climates that I've ever seen have not come in ease and comfort. They usually came from a lot of intentional hard work, but the payoff is huge. Well, how about this? To close it down, maybe last thoughts. People are getting ready to go back to school. It's the beginning of another school year.
  • John: What would you remind them of? One of our favorite quotes at CharacterStrong is we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. What would be the reminder you would leave people today as they head into another year serving kids, serving communities? Let's go.
  • Andy: I believe that educators are put on this planet to save lives. When you look at a student in front of you, you're there to change the trajectory of their life forever. We're at the enormous responsibility that you have when you're being put in front of these students, whether you're a school leader or a teacher, whatever that may be, and you have to look at every single one of them that same way. It's not just the easy kids to work with, but especially the tough kids to work with. That's why you're put on this planet. You have to have that kind of passion and energy, enthusiasm, every single day, whether you woke up grumpy or not. You have to come in here and bring it for kids every single day, no matter what.
  • Andy: Because they're counting on you. Education is a society game changer. We are the ones who change society for the good, and create better kind of countries in the world all around us, and they need us to every day bring our best to these kids. And by the end of the year, you can't leave anything on the table. You have to have no regrets so that you knew you gave every single thing you could for every single one of those students that are under your care.
  • John: There it is. We're heading back. We are lifesavers, world changers. We're grateful for the work that educators everywhere are doing for students. Dr. Andy Jax, thank you for the work that you're doing. I look forward to continuing to follow you. How can people connect with you?
  • Andy: Yeah. Follow me on Twitter @_AndyJax, or on my website, Andyjax.co. Andy Jax dot C-O.
  • John: Awesome. Well have great start to your year. Grateful for you and we'll be talking to you more soon.
  • Andy: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.