Erin Jones has been involved in and around schools for the past 26 years. She has taught in a variety of environments, from predominantly Black to predominantly White to some of the most diverse communities in the nation. Erin received an award as the Most Innovative Foreign Language Teacher in 2007, in 2008 was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year. She also received recognition at the White House in March of 2013 as a "Champion of Change” and was Washington State PTA’s “Outstanding Educator” in 2015. After serving as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, Erin worked as an executive for two State Superintendents. Erin ran as a candidate for State Superintendent and was the first Black woman to run for any state office in Washington state, a race she lost by a mere 1%. She and her husband of 25 years have a daughter who recently graduated from Central Washington University, a son who is a senior at Harvey Mudd College and one who coaches high school football with husband, James, who is a high school teacher in North Thurston School District.
We talk with Erin about the work that she is doing with students and educators of all ages as she invites people into the conversation of building community thru her message of Dream, Invest, & Love.
John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Erin Jones. Erin has been involved in and around schools for the past 26 years. She has taught in a variety of environments from predominantly black, predominantly white, to some of the most diverse communities in the nation. Erin received an award as the most innovative foreign language teacher in 2007, in 2008 was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year, and she also received recognition at the White House in March of 2013 as a champion of change and was Washington state's PTA's Outstanding Educator in 2015.
John: After serving as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, Erin worked as an executive for two state superintendents. Erin ran as a candidate for State Superintendent and was the first black woman to run for any state office in Washington state, a race she lost by a mere 1%. She and her husband of 25 years have a daughter who recently graduated from Central Washington University, a son who is a senior at Harvey Mudd College, and one who coaches high school football with her husband James, who is a high school teacher in the North Thurston school district.
John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Erin Jones.
John: All right. It's so exciting to have Erin Jones on the CharacterStrong podcast today. Erin, I've been looking forward to having you on our show for a while now. Thanks for being with us today.
Erin: Yeah, really excited to join you.
John: Well, I know this, I know that you are doing some powerful work right now in schools, and I know that that work includes work that you're doing with adults, educators in the building. I also know that it is work you're doing with students. So tell me a little bit about that work cause I know that you are everywhere, it feels like, right now.
Erin: Yeah. And what's exciting, I am a little bit of everywhere. I'm actually in Phoenix, Arizona right now. I was in Texas on Monday and then Sunday and Saturday. So I'm literally everywhere. And I'm talking with everyone from early childhood providers to college professors, from kids in elementary school up through college age students. Really talking with everyone about how do we build community right now in a society that's really ... seems divided. It seems more divided than ever even though we have all this technology to bring us together. We seem really divided and so I get to do really powerful work from keynotes speeches to workshops with kids to workshops with adults. I'm kind of in lots of different spaces doing some really exciting work.
John: That's awesome. Well, I had the honor of actually getting to watch you present. I'd been wanting to find a time where you were in an area where I could get to, and I got to watch you deliver a Martin Luther King, Jr assembly keynote speech here in Washington, and was just drawn in. And I think obviously your passion, but your experience, as well as just the ... I guess the best way I would describe it as your very loving, positive approach with also like pushing in like where we need to be pushing in. And that combination I think is important. You invite people into the work that you know is not going to be easy right now, but is so critically important.
Erin: No, I love that. I love that. The invitation. I like that you see that because I'm really intentional about not coming in aggressive, but really inviting people into a conversation. So I love that way of describing the work.
John: Yeah. Which is great role modeling, right? Of, "How do we tackle really important topics," right? And doing it in an intentional way. And I know that one of the messages that you deliver and love delivering is this idea of like dream, invest, love. And as we, kind of with the CharacterStrong podcast, our goal is to like get right to the stuff. Right? And so for those that are listening, sometimes even on their way into work or leaving work, or maybe a short little bit on their planned period. Talk to me a little bit about that, and even through that lens, some just practical things that I can be thinking about as someone working in education, and/or could put into practice. So tell me a little bit about the dream, invest, love message that you've been delivering.
Erin: Sure. So my busiest season at the year for assemblies is Martin Luther King Day, and I typically do anywhere from 20 to 25 assemblies in about two and a half weeks. And every year I kind of look for a theme. "What am I going to talk about?" And this year what I fell into, just looking at, not only Dr. King's life, but where we are as a country, I thought about, "What does he represent that we can take hold up today and really wrap our brains around and live out?" Because I think ... I don't like assemblies that are one and done where you tick a box, "Okay, we talked about his life." I want to leave students and adults in the room with a challenge for how to live a life that models what he represented.
Erin: And so when I thought about his life, there were three things that really drew me in. He had big dreams. He talked ... Obviously, his most famous speech was "I Have a Dream". And I think what that represents for me is, "How do I challenge young people and adults alike to have big dreams, to not allow yourself to have small expectations, but to dream big and to also realize that when you dream big, you're not always going to get what you think you want, but big dreams will always challenge you to stretch yourself." And so I challenge young people and adults, "Always have big dreams. And let those dreams be bigger than you. So bigger than the house and the cars and the stuff. What is a big dream that can affect your community?"
Erin: Secondly, invest ... "How can you invest more deeply in becoming the best version of yourself? So if you're a student, how are you showing up at school? Are you just showing up and doing time because you have to be there five or six hours a day? Or are you taking advantage of every opportunity to grow as a reader, as a writer, as a thinker?" And so really talented young people to use school to become the best version of themselves. "Use those opportunities after school and before school with clubs, with teams, to really stretch yourself and to grow."
Erin: And then, finally, think about, "How do you love courageously?" And I laugh about this with students, but it's not about hugging people around you all the time and kissing people on the cheek. It's not that kind of mushy love. It's really, in an age of a lot of hate and vitriol, especially on social media, less of haters, less of people looking for opportunities to hate. "How do we show up in spaces with love? And by love, I mean things like when you see a friend post something on social media that is either hurtful to other people or maybe even degrading to themselves, are you willing to reach out to them and say, 'You know what? That's not cool. It's not good for you, and it's not good for the community. I'm going to challenge you to take that down. I want to be a listening ear for you.'"
Erin: "Are you willing, when someone hates on you on social media or in real life, are you willing to respond not with hate, but with love and say, 'You know, what did you mean by that? That was really hurtful.' Are you willing to step in and be a voice for the voiceless? Who are the voiceless people in your school? Whether you're on staff ... you know, is it that brand new teacher? Is it a parent educator? If you're a student, who are the groups of people that are being maligned or cast out who are not being talked to you, who are invisible in your school? How do you reach out to them?"
Erin: So there's lots of ways that we can show up with courageous love. And I think right now in our society that's the most important of the three: dream, invest, love. For me right now, I'm really honing in on the love, and that message works across every dynamic. So I've used that message in churches, for nonprofit organizations in early learning, higher ed. It's a message that resonates for everyone wherever I go.
John: I love that. I mean .... I love that. Pun intended. I think that ... I mean, in CharacterStrong we talk about that quite regularly, even in our servant leadership curriculum that like the idea that love is more than a feeling, and when you understand that there's multiple types of love and the love that we're really digging into is, you know what the Greeks would call "agape love". That's that unconditional, deliberate choice. Even a way of looking at it like love is a verb, it's an action. And that sometimes the biggest paradigm shift that I ever experienced in teaching students this work was the idea that you can love someone and not even like them. And that when you understand.
John: Yeah. When you understand that you can love someone and not even like them, now you're starting to understand what real love is. And I love that you're bringing that message to students and to schools.
John: I mean, we have about two minutes left here. Maybe talk to you like ... If I'm listening I'm like, "Yep, absolutely. I'm in with this idea of dream, invest, love." I love the the part that you're talking about because it connects to purpose, connects to like how we show up, that personal accountability piece. And then really at the core of all of this and how we interact with each other and how we show up with each other, not just in schools, but in our world, that at the core of it needs to be that love piece, how are you seeing ... Like is there ... Like how can ... Some practical examples, or how you're seeing schools that are diving into this work, knowing that there is a lot of difficult things that are happening right now that schools are dealing with, that communities are dealing with, any just ... an example of a community or a school that right now is really getting serious about that work and what they're doing?
Erin: Well, you know, so I just finished speaking at a social justice conference in Shoreline School District, which is just north of Seattle, and they specifically asked me to do a workshop on responsible use of social media. And they're being really explicit about ... Instead of leaving the conversation about social media to chance, they are being really intentional about, "How do we help students navigate social media and think about how they show up on social media?" And so it was this really great opportunity to talk with ... I had middle school students for an hour and then high school students for an hour, really talking with them about, you know, "When you show up, what are the platforms you're using, where are people using them responsibly, where people not using them responsibly?"
Erin: And I would challenge any educators in the house who we're listening. We have got to have conversations about social media. Students are using social media platforms. When I think about the students who are in the most need for love and for attention, when I think about who's committing suicide that I know of ... I had three students whose schools I was at last year who committed suicide based on things that happened on social media. They kind of were the last straw. We have got an obligation, I think, as educators in public schools, private schools, to have conversations with students about real talk, about how they can show up on social media in responsible ways. And I have told my students for years, "You don't have to like each other, but you have to love each other."
Erin: "And what that means is showing respect." And then having intentional conversations about, "What does respect look like?" Don't assume that students know what that looks like. Have intentional conversations about, "How does it look to show up for a friend with love? How does it look like to show up for a peer that you don't like with love?"
John: Yeah. I think what I love about that is when you think about through the lens of social media, it's just like anything else, we need to explicitly be teaching and helping students navigate. And one of the issues I think is this is not just a student problem. Like social media usage is not just a young person thing.
Erin: Yeah. Absolutely.
John: Right? It's an adult thing, and we're the ones that are supposed to be teaching them, right?
John: Yeah. So I think that ...
Erin: Yes. We should be modeling.
John: Yeah. One of the powerful things there I think is it's like, well, schools once again I think are being asked ... and it is the place where it needs to happen because it represents ... this is ... We get them for six, seven hours a day, and the average family today is spending 30 minutes together, right?
Erin: Right. Right.
John: So if we want what's best for our students ... If we have students in our communities that are committing suicide because of things that are happening on social media, then we need to be supporting students in that space and how to show up in those spaces. And I think there's a continued conversation here that I'd like to have with you. And so maybe to close down this first one knowing that we keep these right around 10 minutes, but the great thing is we can have people, you know, come back, and maybe this is even a teaser. Two quick questions to end, along with my thanks for joining us today on this first one. One is when you go into schools, what are some of the different topics that you are ... You mentioned what Shoreline asked you to specifically speak on. Give me a few of the other topics that you're presenting right now and supporting schools in.
Erin: So I speak four languages, was raised ... born in the United States, but raised overseas, have taught in all types of communities with all different demographics, and so I talk a lot about culturally responsive practice because I know it. I was raised ... And so I have not studied this stuff, I've had to live it out. And so I'm help schools not be so scared of talking about race and culture and, "What does equity mean in school spaces?" So I do a lot of that work. I do a lot of team building work, and "How do we create climates, whether in school or in business, nonprofits, that are embracing different people, whatever that difference is? How do we create communities that are not just tolerant?" And so I do a lot of that work.
Erin: I do work around leadership, and I've been in leadership roles really since I was a kid, as a leader of sports. I was the captain of all three of my sports teams all the way through high school and then into college and have worked in administration and education for 15 years in some role. So I talk about leadership as well and servant leadership, "How do you lead from the ground? How do you be an authentic leader?"
John: Yes. Yep.
Erin: So those are the things that I do most often.
John: Love it. Well, I think that there is a a series here that I'd love to come back, even do a multipart series with you digging into some of those topics. Would you be willing to come back and potentially do that with us?
John: Love it. Well, how about this? To end today, how can people connect with you? How can they find you if they want to reach out, if they want to connect, whether that be social media or contact?
Erin: Yeah. The best way to reach ... I have two Facebook pages. My personal page, Erin Jones. You can't friend me cause I have 5,000 friends. This is what happens when you run for state office.
John: It's the big time.
Erin: But you can me a message there.
Erin: I don't know about that. But you can send me a message there. I also have a public Facebook page that is the best way to get to know what I'm thinking. So I talk about all of these things. Every week I post at least one thing, either about equity, about race and social justice, about love. And that's Erin Jones 2016 is how you'll find me there. I'm also on Linkedin, I'm on Twitter, and I'm on Instagram.
John: You're everywhere. Love it.
Erin: So any one of those social media platforms you can find me. I am everywhere. I don't do Snapchat cause that freaks me out a little bit.
John: Yes, I'm with you.
Erin: But the rest of 'em I'm on.
John: Excellent. Well, I sure appreciate having you on the show today, Erin. Thank you for the work that you're doing. And I know this won't be the last time. We're working with the regularly and seeking out your insight and advice, and I'd love to come back and have a multipart series here, but thanks for being with us today.
Erin: Thank you so much.
John: All right, have a great day.
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.