This month, we’re featuring the work of Black leaders at BES to shine a spotlight on what drives them to do this important work on behalf of leaders, children, and communities.
Jonta Morris is committed to preparing leaders to create pathways for children to lead lives of choice and opportunity. She joined the BES team in December 2021. In her role as Senior Director of the BES Fellowship, she partners with her Senior Co-Director, Dawn Hicks, to provide an impactful Fellowship program to support leaders to transform education in their communities. Together, Jonta and Dawn are charged with establishing and nourishing the systems, practices, and partnerships that set our Fellows up for success in the school-founding process.
Jonta is regarded as a trailblazer and history maker, having served as the founder and CEO of Birmingham, Alabama’s first public charter school, Legacy Prep. Previously, Jonta taught kindergarten at KIPP Academy Elementary in New York and was a founding reading teacher and founding assistant principal at KIPP Montbello College Prep in Colorado. She has also served as an assistant principal at a priority turnaround school as well as a principal resident at one of the most innovative traditional school districts in the country, Denver Public Schools.
Why did you become an educator, and what drives you to support school leaders to find purpose and sustainability in their work?
Education found me. The destiny moves were evident throughout my life, starting at a young age playing school with my granny or helping my mom in her elementary classroom. However, I initially ignored the clues.
I started working in corporate America after college but lacked purpose and fulfillment in my job. I’ve always believed that a high-quality education is a fundamental human right, but it was only after joining Teach For America that I realized my heart was anchored in using education to uplift, empower, and partner with communities. I understood the narrative and systematic oppression that plagues communities of color. On the first day of school, during year one of teaching, I stood in front of my first-grade shining stars and cried. My soul was at peace. My life’s work is truly about rewriting the narrative and proving what’s possible. It’s about honoring the voices and experiences of children and adults; listening to their hopes, wants, needs, and fears; and serving as a champion for transformation and impact.
I’ve held leadership positions at traditional district and public charter schools across the country. I’ve also served as a social entrepreneur by launching my own local education agency. Now, I am in a position where I can use my experiences to empower leaders, schools, and systems to lean into their visions, dreams, purpose, and passion in service of radically changing the educational system as we know it.
Jonta and her sons
How do you encourage founders during this difficult and unprecedented time in education?
It is challenging for people who aren’t in the seat of a school leader or educator to understand the magnitude of the impact the pandemic has had on our collective emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. My encouragement is rooted in empathy, grace, love, and understanding. I encourage founders by creating the space and conditions for them to simply be human. I know firsthand the level of resilience, passion, and sacrifice that goes into founding a school and organization. All in all, my purpose is to be a mentor, cheerleader, and champion for founders.
Leaders who identify as women or people of color have to navigate a space designed to oppress their voices and value through systematic oppression and the white supremacist behaviors that exist in our world. Because of that, I can share my experience to show leaders how to navigate the school founding space and the politics and emotions that go along with it. I have often felt, and leaders have told me that they have felt, that we have to be “superheroes,” pushing through challenges no matter what. Leaders, hear me when I say, that is a myth. I see serving school leaders of color and women as a personal mission of mine to remind them that they not only deserve a seat at the table but possess the skills to create the table.
Educators are mission-driven, allowing their heart and passion to drive the work. Leaning in this way causes leaders to go 100mph on low fuel because there is a misnomer that doing otherwise is failing kids or communities. It’s okay to name and honor oneself. Don’t keep pushing: pause, breathe, restore. I help founders adjust course along the way and see that taking a needed pause or stepping back to reflect in no way means that they are failing kids or communities. I was once told by one of my staff members, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Making sure your cup is full allows you to serve children and families in ways that they need most.
The toll that this pandemic has had on school leaders continues to be tough. I try to have those same conversations with leaders that someone would’ve had with me during my founding years. And, I encourage founders to have similar, human-centered conversations with their staff. Now more than ever, leaders have to be even more responsive to the emotional well-being of those we manage and be actively anti-racist for all stakeholders at the school.
What is your advice for school leaders in February and beyond?
- Acknowledge and celebrate Black Excellence year-round! Center practices, systems, and processes in culturally affirming ways. Conduct a self-reflection and audit to ensure you are showing up as a partner, creating the conditions for others to be their authentic selves.
- It’s okay to not be okay. When you recognize that you’re not okay, step back, breathe, and recalibrate yourself to consider where and how you need to be restored.
- Leaders carry a lot of their shoulders, especially during this time. Lean on, lean in, lift up. Allow your “why” to guide you. It’s your moral compass.