SCHOOLS | October 22, 2020
By Dr. Jo Easterling-Hood, Principal of McDowell Elementary
During my first few years as a special education teacher at McDowell Elementary in the early 1990s, I remember sharing a sense of excitement with my colleagues about a new invention that was rapidly gaining popularity—the World Wide Web.
After I became the school’s principal in 1997, I wrote into our mission statement that our students would be exposed to up-to-date technology that would prepare them to succeed in a global economy. The words sounded impressive, but I didn’t know exactly what they meant at the time.
But as the years went by, we got into a rhythm at McDowell and our focus on technology continued to grow. We were ahead of the curve in being one-to-one with devices, and I prioritized keeping a clean and up-to-date website for our parents to use.
I almost like to think that you can break down my 23-year principalship into different sections based on what new technology our students were using at the time—from NOOKs to iPads to Chromebooks.
Now that I feel that I’ve been able to fulfill the mission that I set so many years ago, I’ve started to think about passing the baton. Yet, at the beginning of every new school year, something inside of me pushes me to want to ride it out one more year to see how this mission continues to evolve.
This school year was like seeing our mission come to life. Of course, I would love to have my kids in the building, but I am so glad that all the work we have put in for so many years is paying off to help them power through learning remotely.
Something that I would tell any principal is that it’s no longer enough to just be proficient in technology. As a leader, you need to push yourself because your school community—both parents and staff—is always going to be an intergenerational group that will rely on you to communicate and partner with them using the channels and platforms that they are comfortable with. And these won’t always be the same for everyone.
However, this isn’t a challenge that you have to take on alone. Leading still means learning. At McDowell, cultivating a strong team where everyone brings something to the table has meant that continuously learning comes easily.
For example, one of my special education classroom assistants has been extremely successful in engaging her students by incorporating social media dance competitions, virtual scavenger hunts, and other interactive activities during “brain breaks.” The students love having an outlet to move around and bond with each other as they learn from home, so much so that it sometimes gets difficult to transition them to asynchronous learning because they are having so much fun.
I certainly learn new ways to connect with my students every year from the incredible efforts of my staff, but I always come back to two key principles. The first is that you have to have passion for what you do. The other is that even when you have to be firm or strict, as long as your students know that you really care and love them, they’ll love you back.
And while my time as principal of McDowell isn’t going to last forever, the love that you can feel at my school will. You can feel the love in the stories of McDowell alumni. One of my first special education students is now a special education teacher. A student who once played the piano during our morning announcements is now a Grammy winner. One student who discovered her passion for forensics on a field trip now works in that field—and now her niece is a McDowell student.
I’ve lived right by McDowell since 1969, and I don’t think I’ve felt the love from our community quite like I have this school year. It has been challenging for all of us, but we still see excellence as the expectation and collaboration as the path to get there.
Principal Appreciation Week always reminds me about how much I’ve grown from year to year—I still think back to the days when I thought the World Wide Web was new and exciting. As Principal Appreciation Week 2020 comes to a close, I want to encourage my fellow leaders to remember that leadership has its pros, woes, and foes.
Success comes when you embrace the pros, learn from the woes, and avoid the foes. You were born for this!
Dr. Jo Easterling-Hood has been the principal of McDowell Elementary since 1997, and has worked at the school since 1991. She is a proud Chicago Public Schools graduate of Earhart Elementary and Chicago Vocational High School.