Opinion: Lamont Jackson is an educator who speaks to both our head and our heart

A student with special needs walks with her mother at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont. Photo by Chris Stone

Last Saturday, the San Diego Unified School District moderated a forum so residents can hear from two finalist superintendents: Dr. Lamont Jackson and Dr. Susan Enfield.

Jackson introduced himself as a former SDUSD graduate and explained how a personal tragedy influenced his educational journey. He described how this tragedy was the basis of what he called “an unapologetic stance on equity and inclusion”. He said he viewed the stakeholder input process as a collective decision-making process.

It did not surprise me that on Monday the Board of Education announced that Jackson would be our new superintendent. Sitting in the darkened theater of Wilson Middle School last weekend, I heard from two educators who were both passionate and knowledgeable. Both were obviously highly skilled.

But for this seasoned teacher, what I heard beyond the rhetoric was that one was speaking to my head, and the other was willing to listen with both his head and his heart. And that is the hallmark of any great educator.

As a principal once told me, “You have to have a strong work ethic to be a great teacher, but you also have to believe in children and believe in their families. I believe the same must be true for a superintendent, and I’ve been around to see when that happens and when it doesn’t.

You could say it has made me shameless in my advocacy for the families and students I serve as well.

Twenty years ago, a superintendent named Alan Bersin arrived to observe the sensible approach of my class then. Mr. Bersin had never been a teacher and he was both a “drug czar” before leading the SDUSD and a “border czar” afterwards.

The day he walked into my classroom, he didn’t speak to a single student, but left the classroom saying, “Great job on your test scores!” This is where I was, where our superintendent was in the early 2000s. This was where great districts like SDUSD were from coast to coast.

We were all in the lead. We thought at the time that by limiting things, using the motto “kids will rest later”, we were doing the right thing for the kids.

We were wrong.

But that same year, a new principal named Cindy Marten had just taken over as director of Central Elementary, which is right downstairs from my house. Working alongside his community, Marten developed a partnership framework at a time when few district leaders considered more than test results.

It didn’t surprise me that Marten’s role as superintendent would then lead to nationwide recognition, or her being named under secretary of education. It surprised me that my teaching began to change, as did my approach to working with my class partners.

I also brought my son and daughter to my Title 1 school, and watched them thrive in my co-workers’ classrooms. Under Marten’s leadership, our district has grown a heart.

This is the main theme I hear every time I hear Jackson speak. He describes the idea of ubuntu, or humanity, in its approach to moving forward. Jackson saw the change made by SDUSD, as did I. It became a district-wide part of it under Marten herself. He became unmoved for this change.

And that’s what SDUSD needs now. We must be both the head and the heart. We cannot go back to what we once were.

Every school district in California currently needs ubuntu. Jackson’s selection ensures that we retain ours. And that we can be shameless in doing so.

Thomas Courtney is a Grade 5 teacher at Chollas-Mead Elementary School. He was named teacher of the year in 2021.

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Steven L. Nielsen