My quest is to find leaders who have been effective in leading their organizations and learn from their success. I have found these leaders in businesses big and small, non-profit organizations, and governmental entities. They all share some similar traits, yet I always learn new and interesting ideas and best practices. I recently came across Beverly Johnston, principal of Madison Station Elementary in Madison County. This school has over a thousand students in kindergarten through fifth grade and 100 faculty and staff. In 2010, this school was awarded the National Blue Ribbon Schools award by the U. S. Department of Education. Johnston’s school was one of only three in the state to achieve this award that year and the first ever in the Madison County District. The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and non-public elementary, middle, and high schools where students achieve at very high levels. The Program sets a standard of excellence for all schools striving for the highest level of achievement, and is part of a larger U. S. Department of Education effort to “identify and disseminate knowledge about best school leadership and teaching practices.”
Johnston grew up in Brookhaven and earned a B.S. in education from Delta State University. She began her teaching career in DeSoto County Schools teaching second grade at Hernando Elementary, then moved to Madison County and taught second grade at Madison Avenue Elementary until becoming an administrator. She also has a M.Ed in curriculum and instruction from the University of Mississippi and a M.Ed in Administration from Mississippi College. She shared that, “My kindergarten teacher told my mom she would be disappointed if I were not a teacher. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher, but I never envisioned myself being a principal.” However, early in her career, one of her principals encouraged her to think about being a principal and how she could impact students in that role. I think this is a great example of how important it is to cast a vision for people when you are a leader and to challenge them to fulfill their potential.
Johnston shared her key leadership principles with me that have guided her career: Focus, Servanthood, Excellence, Commitment to Learning, and Faith. Regarding focus, Johnston said, “As a leader, I try to base every decision I make on what is best for the students. Knowing I will not be able to please every teacher or parent, if I remain true to the best interest of all students, I am on the right track.” On servanthood, she noted, “I believe that I have to be willing to do any task that needs to be done….from the not so fun tasks of sweeping the dirty cafeteria floor or cleaning up after a sick child, to the fun times when reading to a classroom of students, touring a new family or helping a teacher with a need.” She shared on excellence that, “I have high expectations for all employees and continue to challenge them to be thinkers and learners. I expect them to ask themselves ‘why’ am I teaching this particular concept and how will it impact students. Equally, I expect students to excel in their learning and in their behavior. I fully believe that when the bar is raised, we all rise to a higher level of expectation.”
Like other great leaders, Johnston has a commitment to learning, and she noted, “In my profession, I believe that I have to be a life-long learner and that I have to continue to read and stay abreast of child development, current teaching trends, and strategies to meet the needs of our ever changing student populations. I must stay current and not allow my staff to become complacent and content.” Finally, she shared that faith has played an important role in her life. She shared her guiding verse from Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding but in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths.”
As advice for future leaders, Johnston shared a quote by Albert Schweitzer: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful…” She encourages people to find work that is not so much work, but an activity that gives you joy. Johnston has certainly found a career where her passion is having a big impact on others. In this important area of educating our children for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities, Johnston and her team are setting the bar high for themselves and the children. I am always encouraged by leaders like Johnston who make a choice to strive for excellence in whatever they do.
>> Martin Willoughby, a business lawyer in Jackson, is a regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. Willoughby can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.