099: Jethro Jones: No Excuse Stewardship (transcript)

October 26, 2018 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Jethro Jones contacted me to make a challenge that he wanted to do public and that part of this challenge and conversation gets very personal. We started talking about education. He’s a principal. The past few years have transformed my understanding of education and how critical it is for culture, society and democracy. It is not just something that happens in schools. For this podcast we’ll also talk about how it affects leadership. Principals like him influence culture more than most people think. He has authority as a principal in his school but listen to how he leads. He doesn’t use his authority. He works with his values and the students’ values and the teachers’ values. If you’re compliant, we talk a bunch about compliance, if you’re complaint our educational system probably dumped it on you for 12 to 16 years of your most formative years. I know you’ll find that part of the conversation were Jethro talks about his personal challenge engaging and exciting. I believe you’ll find the conversation about education equally engaging, especially if you’re into leadership.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Jethro Jones. Jethro, how are you?

Jethro: I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me.

Joshua: And because it’s unusual… You’re talking from where?

Jethro: Alaska. Fairbanks, Alaska. I’m way up north.

Joshua: Yeah, that’s really… I want to get back to that in a little bit because it’s so far away from the lower 48. And I think, personally I think it’s interesting. And I want to start with the leadership part of Leadership and the Environment because in my life a long time ago… I say this as clearly as a teacher. I’m a professor. I have online courses. And I thought of teaching and being a principal as being kind of not really that influential like teachers influence their classroom and certainly, I remember teachers that have had an effect on me and principals influence their school. But I didn’t really think of them as influencing the world outside of that. And now I think totally differently. You’re part of the reason for that. You have a podcast called Transformative Principal that has broad listenership. Maybe you could say a little bit about yourself and also why was I wrong. I mean I have my ideas but I think you know better than I do.

Jethro: That’s funny. I’m not sure I do know better than you but… So I host a podcast called Transformative Principal like you said and it is all about really I think this is a succinct way to say it now is helping principals create schools that adapt to kids rather than forcing kids to adapt to schools which is how we’ve done it for you know a hundred years. And so I’m really working hard to change public education from the inside. And a lot of people you know think that it’s impossible, think that you can’t change this big huge monstrosity. I’m a day-to-day, I’m a public-school principal at a middle school here and so what I do is I just try to help other principals figure out how to do amazing things with their students and make a school that is better for their students every single day.

So I mean that’s really the simple part of it and what you said about school principals shaping the future I mean it’s the truth. I was just listening to a podcast by Dan Carlin Hardcore History where he was talking about how education played such an important role in preparing the Japanese to be a superpower when they’re just this little tiny island in Japan. And, boy, that was like the world’s worst summary of what Dan Harlan does.

Joshua: Dan Harlan is amazing, yes. We all have to listen to that podcast.

Jethro: But he talks about education being propaganda for the state which it really is. I mean that’s what we do. We are propagandizing all these kids and that has a negative connotation right now. But that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re trying to teach these kids how to be adults and the kind of values we want to instill in them. And so rather than running away from that as educators we need to really think hard about what we are trying to propagandize them with and what we’re trying to lead them to because we do have an incredible amount of influence. And I think that our current situation is a result of our educational policies over the last several, several years that you know we didn’t get the situation that we have now because it just happened. We got it because we taught people to behave in a certain way and now we are where we’re at. And I think there’s some real truth to that. And it’s a big huge thing to shift and it’s really, really difficult.

Joshua: You said a lot of things and I want to go in two directions. One of them, first, there is inside your school and it is what you do with other schools. So inside your school you said that we have been for about a century, maybe more conforming students to schools rather than schools to students. And I grew up thinking this is the way it is. You sit in rows, you take tests, you do what you’re told and that was normal. But now it doesn’t seem so normal. What’s it like… Is that what you’re talking about making students conform to the school and what’s it like at this… What’s it like the opposite if I got it right?

Jethro: Yeah. So like in the 50s or in the 40s or before that what would happen is if a student wasn’t successful in school, they would just leave. Well, what happened in around 2001 when the No Child Left Behind came out we realized that we need to have them before that but a big shift happened when No Child Left Behind came. We realized that we needed to look at different kinds of kids and compare students who were struggling versus students who weren’t and look at ethnic breakdown so that we could see like, “Oh, look we’re suspending all of our African-American students and all of our African-American students are failing. There’s a huge achievement gap.” Whereas before we just looked at the whole school overall and if you had a few minorities that weren’t doing well, no big deal, you just keep on going. No Child Left Behind did something great in forcing us to look at minority populations and see that we were putting them at a disadvantage. Now we’re beyond that and what we’re trying to do is, especially in my school, we are trying to make sure that every single student has a personalized education which is an incredible feat and very challenging and very difficult but making sure that we are meeting the needs of each and every student in our school and that just hasn’t been the case for a very, very long time. You know you’ve probably heard the teacher say, “It’s my job to teach and the students’ job to learn.” That is a common theme. I don’t agree with that. I think that it is the teacher’s job to teach every single student and it’s on them to ensure that those students are learning. And when a student is not, the teacher should go find out why and work with that kid to help them learn.

Joshua: What’s it like then for the teachers? As the principal you’re a leader in the school. They are leaders in the classrooms. I don’t know if that’s a fair way of looking at it. Are they angry at you? Are they welcoming you? How do they feel about that? You are giving them all this responsibility.

Jethro: Yeah. There’s a little bit of both. I really believe in empowering teachers. And so I go from saying, “Here’s what our goal is to make sure that we meet the needs of every single student. It’s not my job to tell you how to do that. It’s my job to give you the tools and resources to do that.” And so you know we do a lot with scheduling. We do a lot with flexibility and making sure that teachers have the time. I don’t put a lot of unnecessary things on our plates. All that kind of stuff it’s important. So traditional teachers don’t like me because I’m asking them to not just teach. I’m asking them to ensure their students are learning and they struggle with that and that’s difficult. It’s not because they’re bad. It’s just because they’ve been teaching for 20 years and now some young punker’s coming and telling them, “You need to teach differently” and they don’t know how to do that. That’s scary. I am messing with their identity of who they are.

Joshua: I use compliance based is I feel like they teach a lot of facts but what really matters is how it changes your life which means how you behave and certain roles come at a certain time, here’s what’s important, here’s what’s not important, not questioning your values, just accept ours. You’re smiling while I was saying that.

Jethro: Yeah. It is very much about compliance. So we are propagandizing students. So that’s what our job is. So we don’t need to act like that, “Oh, no. You can’t say that.” That’s what our job is is to teach students how to act on what’s important. What we’ve been doing for years is teaching that what’s important is compliance and doing what the teacher says. So how are we going to raise people who are willing to take the kind of action that you’re talking about if their job is to be compliant? That’s what we’ve taught them to do. So what are we going to propagandize them to do? We should be propagandizing them to make their own choices, to be independent. Those are the values that we really hold dear in this country. That’s where we should be pushing them. We should be teaching them to care deeply about things that matter and not care about things that don’t matter. And so that compliance issue that is huge. And you know one of the things that….

Joshua: So we are teaching students to do something that we don’t actually practice ourselves.

Tim: Exactly. That’s a good summary.

Joshua: We’re preparing them for the real world but we’re not. As if the real world is somehow separate and they’re not part of the real world. For those listening to this podcast who are here for the leadership part of the Leadership and the Environment and think, “Well, principal’s teaching that’s really education. It’s not what I want to do which is lead and get ahead.” It’s the same thing. It’s the core of… I mean certainly [unintelligible] my book is how to behave in ways. When you get what people care about and connect that to a task, you imbue that task with meaning and then they do it for themselves. Exactly what you said. And teachers and principals I feel like you guys are moving in that direction mainly… I mean a big part of your community’s moved in that direction as opposed to young people what they should do. And I think in the working world or the professional world I think some have gotten it, some haven’t gotten it but it’s what does the other person care about, how can you make them feel comfortable sharing these things because it often makes them feel vulnerable. Now you can be judged on something that you can get really laughed at. Now it’s what you care about that makes you vulnerable. And as a teacher, as a principal, as a leader what I teach is how to behave in ways that people feel comfortable sharing those things.

Also, now talking about projects I want to transition over to the environment part of the Leadership and the Environment because you contacted me and you said, “Josh, I want to do my challenge.” And something made it now, something…. And you’re in the middle of a summit so you’re busy. [unintelligible]

Jethro: Yep. That’s right.

Joshua: What about the environment do you care about? What connected things now? Why now?

Jethro: Well, you know, Josh, some of your listeners may not like this approach but I don’t feel like I care very much about the environment. So if anybody asked me, I would not say that I’m an environmentalist or that I’m somebody who cares much about the environment. I believe that we need to be good stewards of the things that we have and the environment is one of those things so we need to make smart decisions. So you know already like when I go camping I practice leave-no-trace principles – I take my trash out, you know I don’t litter, I stay on the past that are already there and that kind of thing. But I feel like that’s just me being a good steward so I wouldn’t ever say that I’m an environmentalist or that I care deeply about the environment because I personally believe that you know on a spiritual level that the Earth was created for us and has everything that we would need and plenty of resources for us as human beings to survive. And so you know that’s the thing that’s so interesting as is I don’t really see myself as somebody who cares very much about the environment.

Joshua: Well, from independent of what any individual listener wants or identifies with my goal in this podcast is not to bring Disney to the world and say like, “Oh, I just have to do this and so I work and everything works out” but to bring a representative sample and not to make these things easy and say like… Some people say, “Josh, I wasn’t able to do the thing. Can we not [unintelligible]?” And I’m like that’s what’s valuable. I want people to hear in others what they feel and I don’t want to bring all the same people. I’m really curious about… So to be a steward is I feel like that presupposes something that… Why that? I mean is that… That feels like something that’s important to you.


Jethro: Yeah. Being a steward is really important to me because I feel like the things that we have and the things that we use are gifts for us to use and if we treat those gifts poorly, then we shouldn’t get more gifts and if we treat those things well, then we should feel comfortable if we do get more gifts because we know that we’ll be able to use those well in the future. And so you know for me, again that’s a spiritual belief that is very core to who I am as a person and forms a lot of things. So you know I get a gift of having students come to my school, I need to treat those students well. I need to give them an amazing school experience and I need to value who they are as people as I send them on to the next place and I get a new group of kids and if I don’t do that, I don’t have any business being at that school working with those kids. If I’m not honoring and respecting the gift that I have. Does that make sense?

Joshua: Yeah. I cannot but contrast it. You mentioned church earlier and mentioned spiritual a couple of times. There’s a passage translated different ways among different translations that says, “Man has dominion over the earth and all that’s on it.” And a lot of people see dominion as meaning lord domination sort of perspective. And what you’re saying sounds a different way of interpreting it but in contrast to it. I’m not sure if it’s related or not. Is it something related or am I just connecting things that aren’t related?

Jethro: No, that’s definitely related. And that to me that dominion over the earth doesn’t mean that we you know are these evil overlords that destroy the earth and you know rape the environment for our own benefit. It means that like I said that we’ve been given this gift of the earth and we should treat it with respect. But it also has resources that are created for us. And so you know there are different groups of people who say you shouldn’t eat meat and there are people who say well, you shouldn’t eat plants. And so both of those things were created in my opinion for us to be able to use to sustain our life. We have to live, we’re here to live, we’re not here to die quickly and so we need to use the meat from animals as provided, we need to use the plants as provided. Because of technology I believe that we also need to use the fossil fuels and renewable energy that is available to us and we need to do that in a way that is appropriate and shows stewardship rather than shows you know dominating and you know destroying everything so that we can have this for 20 minutes and then leaving a horrible mess in our way. That’s not what I believe we should be doing.

Joshua: It sounds like an interesting mix not to use a gift would be disrespectful, to misuse it would be disrespectful, to use it to honor it as the gift that it is… Am I reading right that that’s honoring ourselves, that’s honoring the way… That’s stewardship, I guess.

Jethro: That’s right. And to me more importantly it’s honoring God who gave us those gifts.

Joshua: So if you are going to change your behavior, is there a piece of stewardship that you’re missing that now you want to switch or why did… What’s the change going to be? Maybe you can share what you want to do.

Jethro: Yeah. So my challenge is that I want to ride my bike to work every day as [unintelligible] in Fairbanks Alaska which means I’m going to be riding my bike to work when it is negative 30 and negative 40 degrees outside which is really cold.

Joshua: [unintelligible] negative 40 because negative 40 is the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit.

Jethro: That’s right. Yep, that’s right. So it’s going to be really cold and I want to do that for a couple of reasons. Number one, I want to be more healthy. Being a good steward of my body includes taking care of it, exercising, things like that. I haven’t been doing a very good job of that and I recently was doing a 66-day challenge to exercise every single day for those 66 days. I only missed one day so far of that and I feel significantly better. And so I wanted to do something that would encourage me to continue exercising. Last year I walked to work many days including my coldest day was negative 32. That was really cold but I…

Joshua: I am sorry to interrupt. I love how the guy from Alaska is like negative 32, that was really cold but like that’s understatement. OK, so yeah that was really cold.

Jethro: So that was really cold and I did that. But you know I still wasn’t exercising all of the time last year so this way I’ll be able to exercise. Once I bought a bike this summer I realized how much I love riding a bike and so being able to do more of the things that I love is also being a good steward to myself. And so I want to force myself to have a reason to ride a bike every single day regardless of what the weather outside is or anything and you know there’s going to be some challenges with that like when I have to take stuff to work how am I going to get it all there. That’s going to be challenging. When it’s cold, that’s going to be challenging. Today it’s hot and yesterday it was hot and I had to ride to a different place where I don’t usually work which is farther away. And so I got there and I was all hot and sweaty and then I was hot and sweaty all day because I never cooled down because the building was hot. So I just felt like I was uncomfortable all day long. But again, like I felt really good riding my bike there and riding my bike back and helped me decompress and get rid of the stress and you know there’s just a lot of benefits that I feel like I need right now in my life that come with riding a bike every day.

Joshua: You’re distinguishing between pleasure, comfort, convenience and a deeper what I would call emotional reward or something meaningful. Did you introduce me to Danny Bauer or did Danny Bauer introduce me to you?

Jethro: I think he introduced you to me.

Joshua: OK. Do you know about his challenge?

Jethro: No, I don’t. [unintelligible]

Joshua: Yeah, he was moving from Texas to Antwerp. And he and his I think then fiancé just about-to-be-wife or just married, they’ve gone from two cars to one in Texas and then they were deciding between one car with zero cars in Antwerp and they went with zero cars. That’s what it was for here and when we talked about it he was like, “Biking is you see things.” And he’s like riding by some old castle, “And you can just stop in and go there because you can ride the bike in.” He was just talking about old the stuff he discovered that he never would have discovered before he wouldn’t even know he was missing. And I’m thinking it’s like the Slow Food movement like yeah, you can eat fast food but slow food is oh, man I’ve got [unintelligible] education for a second because I was reading about like what the French serve their kids in school is what we would call gourmet meals. And at first I think, “Are they going nuts with that?” And what more do we want our resources for than make our kids healthy? I mean even more before teaching them is feeding them. I think that it feels more primal or earlier. In any case, yeah, I’m really curious for you of… I presume you have warm clothes for negative 40 and I guess you are going to be prepared because now you are going to be riding a bike with the wind blowing you off and stuff like that.

Jethro: That’s right. Thankfully there’s not a ton of wind in Fairbanks so that won’t happen too often. And my school is super close so it’s only five minutes and I think you get frostbite after three or four minutes when it’s negative 40. So I should be good. I’ve gotten frostbite before my cheeks right here. So I’ve been there and I survived. And yes, so I think I’m ready to do it.

Joshua: OK, so it’s already a SMART goal. It’s when you say a year you mean from the school year until the kids finish.

Jethro: Well. my contract is a little bit longer than the kids’ so I started yesterday. I’m sorry, I started Monday and I rode my bike both days so far and so now it’s you know it’s just riding my bike every day that I work until my contract is over at the end of May, next at the end of the year.

Joshua: I’m going to give you a couple of things that I’ve learned. So I feel that this is the leadership part is getting someone started. You came to me with something. A lot of people they kind of have to work through what their challenges are going to be. And then I move over to the management part which is to ensure that it’s a SMART goal and it sounds like a SMART goal. And then the two biggest challenges that I find that I am going to tell you about they might be relevant, they might not. So one of them is other people is that one day someone is going to say, “All right. I’ll drive with you to work or something like that.” And they’re going to offer you a ride or the bike is going to be broken or, I don’t know, something’s going to happen. And it’s like, “So what do I do?” And you don’t necessarily have to… But if this comes up, it’s like do I give up. Do I say, “I was good enough till now” or do I say, “Alright. I let this one slide.” or you know there’s lots of different things. Usually with people like eating meat they’ll decide to not eat meat for a while for their reasons. And then you know they go home for Thanksgiving and moms like, “Here is your steak.” And they’re like, “What would I do?” And I don’t profess to give the answers. I just for prepare the person you that the you know the bike’s going to break or you’re going to have a broken ankle or something like that. The other big thing is travel is I guess it’s for you it’s going to be when you’re home but I am mentioning it to you, I am not sure if it will show up at all, but when people travel they are in less control of the world and they find themselves unable to do things that are easier to do when they are in their homes. So things come up. I’ve mentioned it to help prepare you but also I’m curious to hear how you handle the things afterward.

Jethro: Yeah. So those are things that I’ve thought of that I have decided that I will take a ride from someone else who’s going to the same place if that’s the case but that’s not some I’m going to seek out. Last year I asked people for rides. I asked my wife to take me because I didn’t have…We only have one car in our family. So last year I did that a lot. This year I’m not going to do that. I’m going to figure out how to get things done. So for example, I wanted to get flowers from my secretaries as they came back to work on Monday and so what I did is I did drive to the store, bought the flowers, dropped them off at the school and then came home and then rode my bike to work. And in that situation that was more of a “I don’t want to ruin the flowers that I’m getting or not be able to get them because of some limitation that I’m putting on myself.” I want my secretaries to know that I value them and I respect them and I’m happy that they’re there. This was the way that I chose to do it. I could have done other ways, sure, but in this situation I felt totally fine about doing that and didn’t feel like I was letting down on my goal.

And that’s the other thing I was just having an awareness that sometimes there will be things that are either out of my control or that I can’t do and just being okay with that and moving on and committing to riding my bike to work every day is way more in the right direction than getting bent out of shape because I couldn’t do it one day for whatever reason.  So to me I’m just my thought is I ride my bike to work every day and that’s all there is to it. And I’m OK with that. So things are going to come up. I am not going to be able to do it some days. Most days I’ll walk if my bike’s in the shop or something. But you know I’m not going to get bent out of shape when I can’t be successful every single day.

Joshua: I look forward to hearing how it goes. I don’t know. I’m thinking like the bike’s going to break… Bikes are pretty well made these days.

Jethro: You know having that accountability partner is huge in everything that we do.

Joshua: Well, I’m glad to be of service in that way. And I’m here to support you and that’s leadership talking. Leaders want accountability. Leaders want responsibility. I like to close with a couple of questions. One is is there anything I didn’t bring up or that didn’t come up that’s worth bringing up? And the other’s any messages directly for the listeners?

Jethro: So I think we talked about just about everything. So that’s good. The thing that I do want to bring up is that I do have another big goal which is to positively impact the lives of 100 million students by 2027 through the leadership that I’m doing in my school and online and things like that. So if anything that I said will have an impact on any kids to those of you who are listening, then please go to transformativeprincipal.org/impact and just tell me how many kids will be impacted. So if you’re listening to this and you’re a parent and you’re thinking something about education different than you did before and you have kids, you can put three kids or four kids or one kid in there. The reason I’m doing that is that we all do things that are little and they have a big impact that we don’t really see. And right now I’m at forty-four thousand children that have been positively impacted by what I’m doing and I’ve been doing this for almost a year. I’m not going to meet my goal if I stick with that. But I want to be able to change the world in a very real way. And as I talk about things and as I help people see things differently I hope that I make an impact and every little bit counts. And so if you’ll do that transformativeprincipal.org/impact, I would greatly appreciate it.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter