Children went back to the classroom in San Diego Unified School District as part of Phase One to help special needs students. The girl is returning to Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont.
A special needs student walks with her mother into Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont. Photo by Chris Stone

Last Saturday, the San Diego Unified School District hosted a forum so that residents could hear from two superintendent finalists: Dr. Lamont Jackson and Dr. Susan Enfield. 

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

It did not surprise me that Monday the Board of Education announced Jackson will be our new superintendent. Sitting in the dark theater at Wilson Middle School last weekend, what I heard were two educators both passionate and knowledgeable. Both were obviously highly qualified.

But for this veteran teacher, what I heard beyond the rhetoric was that one spoke to my head, and the other was ready to listen with both his head and his heart. And that is the hallmark of every great educator. 

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

You could say this has made me unapologetic in my advocacy for the families and students I serve too.

Twenty years ago, a superintendent named Alan Bersin arrived to observe my then classroom’s no-nonsense approach. Mr. Bersin had never been a teacher, and he was both a “Drug Czar” before leading SDUSD and a “Border Czar” after.   

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

We were all head. We thought in those days that by narrowing things down, by using the motto “the kids will get the rest later,” we were doing right by kids.

We were wrong.

But that very year, a new principal named Cindy Marten had just taken the helm at Central Elementary, which is just down the street from me. Working alongside her community, Marten developed a framework of partnership at a time when few district leaders were considering more than test scores.

It didn’t surprise me that Marten’s role as superintendent thereafter would lead to nation-wide recognition, nor that she’d be tapped as Deputy Secretary of Education. It did surprise me that my teaching began to change, and so did my approach to working with my classroom partners.

I also brought my son and daughter to my Title 1 school, and I watched them flourish in the classrooms of my colleagues. Under Marten’s direction, our district grew a heart.

This is the primary theme I hear each and every time I hear Jackson speak. He describes the idea of ubuntu, or humanity, in his approach to moving forward. Jackson saw the change SDUSD made, just as I did. He became a part of it district-wide under Marten herself. He became unapologetic for that change.

And that is what SDUSD needs now. We need to be both head and heart. We can’t go back to what we once were. 

Every California school district right now needs ubuntu. Jackson’s selection ensures that we retain ours. And that we can be unapologetic about doing so.

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