Leading with 'radical love'

State principal of the year William Jackson on justice-centered education
Story by Mary Gallagher, Photos by Eileen Lee, '21

William Jackson, B.A., ’10, and MiT, ’12, Washington’s secondary principal of the year, says he got his start as a professional educator thanks to the nurturing network that surrounded him at Western.

From Education Professor Kristen French, ’94, B.A., who first asked Jackson if he’d channel his interest in social justice into becoming a teacher, to Education Professor Bruce Larson, who assured Jackson his passion for education would matter more than his test scores in getting into Woodring’s master’s in teaching program, caring connections built the foundation of Jackson’s career.

“It was just people caring and stepping out with support. And that’s what I learned in my first entry to becoming an educator,” said Jackson in a talk this month sponsored by Woodring College of Education and the Foundation for WWU & Alumni.  

Later in his career, as Jackson earned a doctorate in education from the University of Washington, he studied how nurturing relationships and communities for students of color are powerful weapons in dismantling oppression in schools.  

Now the principal of Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Jackson is the 2024 Association of Washington School Principals Secondary Principal of the year and in the running for national principal of the year. He recently visited campus and spoke about leadership for justice in schools, particularly for Black and Brown students.

Jackson, in profile, gesticulates as he explains a concept to two students
Jackson, principal of Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, is the 2024 Association of Washington School Principals Secondary Principal of the year and in the running for national principal of the year.

Leading for Justice in Schools

See “Leading for Justice in Schools” with William Jackson, ’10 and ’12.

His first administrative role, after four years teaching social studies, history and ethnic studies, was as an assistant principal at Nathan Hale.

“Any aspiring principals, one of the roles that you have early on is the toughest part—because the love part of the job gets kind of twisted a little bit—and that’s discipline,” Jackson said. He was particularly troubled by the disproportionately high number of Black and Brown students referred to him for discipline.

“Not only was I seeing the inequities of the system and struggling with what I had studied, but also I was seeing it firsthand,” Jackson said, “as I was working with teachers, working with admin, seeing the data, the trends nationally, and then experiencing it with the students: why they were being pushed out of class, why they weren’t being invited in, why teachers weren’t responding to them and why they weren’t being responded to culturally.”

He began working with about 25 students, Black male teens, in a mentorship program. “The purpose was for identity development, empowerment and to push the system,” Jackson said.

Some of those students eventually became involved in student governance; Jackson spent time mentoring them on how to run campaigns, give speeches and bring about change through the associated student body. Soon students were working together to record their demands for the administration and teaching their peers about how to accrue political power in order to make change within the system.

Small changes built on each other to result in student involvement in hiring committees, more access to advanced curriculum through College in the High School and more equitable grading practices, Jackson said.

Jackson speaks at the front of a lecture hall, while Vero Velez and Kevin Roxas watch from the front row
Jackson is an adjunct faculty member at University of Washington who teaches organizational leadership to school administrators

Now an adjunct faculty member at UW teaching organizational leadership to principals- and superintendents-in-training, Jackson encouraged teachers working toward justice in schools to “center students in the work”—not only their voices, but their strategies on how to have their voices heard. 

“It’s hard as a principal, a superintendent, a board or a cabinet to resist student pressure,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to be in front of students and say, ‘We are not going to do this work.’”

Jackson’s talk was “very much rooted in the work of Woodring,” said Woodring Dean Kevin Roxas. “We are thinking about and fostering work toward equity and justice in schools: How do we lead for justice? How do we change the ways in which we think about hiring people for schools? How do we create a culture that leads to better outcomes for all of our students, with attention to the needs of specific students?”

Jackson also had some advice for teachers in training: Be upfront in job interviews about your values.

“If I have an interview for a job,” he said. “I’m going to say that I believe in equity, justice, access and will lead with radical love.”

Leading with your values, Jackson said, helps open a conversation later about how to put those values into practice.

“They brought you in, so they have to support you with that,” he said. “And if they don’t then they need to be held accountable for that.”

The National Association of Secondary School Principals is expected to announce the national secondary principal of the year in October.