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Learning to Lead

Jacob Skousen

Jacob Skousen, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of Leadership, Policy, and Development in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Photo by Woody Myers

April 25, 2019

Assistant Professor Jacob Skousen focuses on educational leadership and social justice in schools.

When Jacob Skousen headed from Idaho to Nicaragua for a church mission in the 1990s, he was 19 years old. It was a journey that carried him not only to an unfamiliar place, but it eventually led him to his life’s work as an educator.

Skousen, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of Leadership, Policy, and Development in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Like so many educators he was drawn to teaching because he wanted to make a difference.

His experiences before college shaped his career path, and his past teaching positions have led to a research line that includes leadership for social justice, teacher mentoring projects in rural schools, and a case study of principals who’ve attended the Tointon Institute for Educational Change.

In his office in McKee Hall his bookshelves are filled to capacity with texts and journals. A voracious reader, he can reach out, mid-conversation, capture a book and conjure the words of educators John Dewey, Malcolm Knowles and Paulo Freire. And he does so with an intensity that comes from not only having read about social justice and leadership in education, but from having lived and breathed it. 

Building on a Purpose

“Some of my original critical consciousness came from living in Central America — in Nicaragua — which is where I learned Spanish,” he says. “I spent two years there — part of the time with Doctors Without Borders. I was in the capital — Managua — where there’s a city dump and people actually live there. They sort through garbage that ends up there and that’s how they make their living, and that’s where they eat.”

Skousen helped the doctors in the clinic, translating, taking down health histories and at one point, working in the nearby school, reading with the kids. The poverty he saw was eye-opening.

“Talk about a crisis of self, right? Recognizing how much I had and where I had come from and seeing this unfold in front of my face was ... it was life changing,” he says.

Back in Idaho, he enrolled at Boise State University with a clear vision of what he wanted to do in life. “I recognized that teaching is what I was, who I am.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a bilingual education endorsement, he taught for about eight years, with students ranging from fourth grade through high school. As a middle school teacher, he was hired to teach “intervention courses” in reading and mathematics.

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From Jacob Skousen’s Bookshelf

Well-read, Skousen pulls books from a vast collection to share ideas and philosophies. Following is his short list of books which have influenced his approach to education.

  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
  • Life in Schools by Peter McLaren
  • Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes
  • Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach by Paulo Freire
  • Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
  • Democracy and Education by John Dewey
  • Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning by Henry Giroux
  • Chomsky on MisEducation by Noam Chomsky
  • Reinventing Paulo Freire by Antonia Darder
  • Literacies of Power by Donado Macedo
  • We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know by Gary R. Howard
  • Literacy con Carino by Hayes, Bahruth and Kessler
  • A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education with Ira Shor and Paulo Freire
  • The School Leaders Our Children Deserve: Seven Keys to Equity, Social Justice and School Reform by George Theoharis

“I worked in high poverty schools with high numbers of students who were second language learners,” he says. During that time, he also earned his master’s degree in curriculum instruction with an emphasis on bilingual education. He went on to earn a second master’s degree — a master’s of education and educational leadership.

Then he was offered a unique opportunity: He was hired as a principal for a new alternative school tasked with addressing a problem in the district.

“The district would see about 500 students in the grade level who would transition to ninth grade from two middle schools — about 250 students per middle school. By the time they enrolled in tenth grade, there were only about 350,” Skousen says.

While enrollment losses are not uncommon, these numbers went beyond typical. Many of the children started school with challenges other children did not, with poverty, language barriers and frequent moves putting up obstacles to learning.

“The district selected 50 students from each of the middle schools who were the lowest performing and put them in this school that I opened with a group of teachers. It was a phenomenal experience,” Skousen says.

Over the summer, Skousen visited each of the students and their families at their homes, as well as meeting teachers he’d be working with. The team defined who they were and who they wanted to be, then started building community in order to really engage students.

“Teachers work really hard,” Skousen says. “It’s not a question of, ‘Are we working hard?’ It’s a question of, ‘Are we working hard in the right ways?’ So we began to collaborate on what those right ways were going to be for us, and with our students.”

The Complex Realities of Education

But stepping outside the norm isn’t always easy.

Skousen, who earned his Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Boise State, points out that schools are complex, and that there are multiple purposes of education.

“With the adoption of standards, college and career ready standards, we’ve bought onto this idea solely that the purpose of school is college and career readiness,” he says, adding that there are other purposes — like preparing kids for life in a representative democracy or readying them to be members of a community.

Skousen points out that in the past, teachers were writing their own curricula and designing their own lessons. With education policy changes of the last 20 years though, teachers were asked to use textbooks — and sometimes scripts — to teach to an approved standard and to be able to test students against that standard.

“There has been a change where teachers are again engaging in the development of lessons and thinking about how students learn,” he says, “which is probably where we should be as opposed to, ‘Let’s get this one-size-fits-all curriculum that clearly doesn’t fit everyone.’”

But change is a constant in education, sometimes bringing educators full circle. As he talks about the difficulties of change and rhetoric surrounding education, Skousen pauses and references a name from the early days of American public education.

“I’ve read work by John Dewey and read his critiques from the early 1900s about developing creativity, developing a disposition for learning in students. And one could read some
of his essays and say, ‘Yeah. I want to go to the school that’s doing these things.’ That’s over 100 years old now.”

Added to changes in philosophies, pedagogies and policies, teachers and principals are facing challenges — from gun violence to political rhetoric — that require continued learning and leadership skills. 

Helping Principals Lead

Researchers know that the job of today’s principal is much different than it was 40 years ago, and at the same time, criticism of public schools in the U.S. is greater than ever.

“My experiences with teachers are that they got into teaching because they want to make a difference. They want to do the work that’s going to have the greatest impact on kids. And I think it’s no different for principals.”

Having worked as a principal for students, parents and families who come from poverty and a second language background, Skousen has focused his research line on principal leadership for social justice.

“We look at the ways in which students in groups of individuals have been marginalized, presently and historically,” he says. “How have we changed the system to be able to really educate students in a way that would fit their needs?”

Skousen says that we can start by looking at some school practices that perpetuate social injustices.

“In many schools we do things like ability grouping. The term for that in education is tracking. What does that really do? It separates kids. And more often than not, it separates them by socio-economic status and by race-ethnicity. That’s what it ultimately does,” he says.

To understand how tracking can perpetuate social injustice, Skousen explains that when a child who comes from a home where Spanish is the primary language arrives in kindergarten, the child isn’t really being assessed at their learning level as much as by their ability to communicate.

“We’re going to give them a test in English,” he says. “How are they going to do? Are they going to know the alphabet in English? Are they going to be able to count to 10 in English? No. Even if they could do it in Spanish, it wouldn’t matter in many schools. So where are they tracked immediately? That low group.”

Some might argue that as they learn English, students will move into higher tracking groups. But research doesn’t back that up. Instead, Skousen says it reveals a stifling influence.

It was something he’d heard teachers talking about, as well. One teacher — who started as a kindergarten teacher working in an intervention setting — said that after remaining in the district for her career, she went back to see how the children fared in the system.

“She said, ‘They stayed. These were the ones we wanted to give an extra boost to so they wouldn’t be in the low group. But what happened? They stayed there. And if they finished school, they were still at the bottom of the class.’ For the vast majority of the students placed in low groups, they dropped out. They left,” Skousen says.

Working with principals for social justice means taking a close look at those practices.

“If we really are thinking about social justice in our schools, that is a practice that we would eliminate,” Skousen says.

Sometimes, social injustice is woven through educational tools as common as questions written for tests.

Skousen offers an example. “We’re in the state of Colorado. An assessment might have students read a passage about the ocean. Then they have to answer some questions about it.”

He points out that students who’ve been to the ocean and experienced the sound, smell and sight of it will have far richer context than students who’ve never seen the ocean.

“The students who haven’t been to the ocean are typically, students who come from poverty and students of color. The subtleties of the context are going to make them so they can’t respond as easily.”

That doesn’t mean, says Skousen, that people writing the test questions are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for some students than others.

“It’s brilliant, it’s a great question — for someone who’s been there and who’s experienced it, but if you haven’t, it doesn’t make any sense. That person doesn’t really understand that they’re excluding people from being able to really understand the context of the question.”

So, for Skousen, teaching principals leadership for social justice can help them develop schools that meet student needs and foster engaged learning communities.

“I think the start of critical consciousnesses begins with understanding the ways in which we read the world. When we get these vast differences (in seeing the world), if we can really truly engage in that dialogue, we start coming to this middle ground of really understanding.”

He also says that developing leadership skills in principals is something that isn’t always addressed with career-long learning in mind.

“Most recent research in developing school leaders includes talking about leadership development as a continuum, as something that occurs over a long period of time,” he says.

And he feels that UNC’s Tointon Institute is unique in its approach to leadership in education, which led him to do a case study of principals who attended the institute. He wanted to explore how the institute develops leadership capacity in practicing school leaders.

“They talk about leadership theory, and different types of leaders; about change, and how change occurs. And so what Tointon provides school leaders is the opportunity to reengage in their development as a leader, which is what is missing.

“If the principal is learning and working, guess what the teachers are doing? They’re learning and working well, and guess what they do with their students? Their students are learning and working well.”

Skousen’s research on leadership has led him to work on projects ranging from working with principals across the state to providing mentor training to rural teacher leaders. And it’s this work that he finds so rewarding, with a teacher’s and principal’s perspective and a researcher’s drive for understanding.

“When you work as a principal in a school you have to do a lot of thinking, but you make 30 decisions before lunch that are huge for the lives of kids and the lives of teachers. You don’t often have a chance to stop and say, ‘Well let’s see. I’ve got this problem facing me. What’s been written about this? What are other schools doing?’”

Those are questions Skousen explores as he works to make the difference he imagined in a makeshift school in Managua, where the people he met changed how he read the world. “I can still see them,” he says. “I can still see the people I met there.”  UNC

–Debbie Pitner Moors