Principal Leadership: Every School Leader Should Know These 6 Incredible Black Educators–Celebrating Black History Month “Then” and “Now”

by | Feb 8, 2021 | 2 comments

February is dedicated to Black History Month, and although the contributions of African Americans should be recognized every month–woven into all of our learning, celebrations, and acknowledgements–we wanted to take time this month to highlight the great accomplishments that are specific to the field of education. As educators, who grew up in the Christina School District and have worked, and continue to do so, in schools throughout New Castle County, Delaware, we have witnessed the tremendous work being done by African American teachers and administrators. These incredible leaders have accomplishments and stories that must be told throughout every year as schools look to educate their current students and work to build the next generation of educators. We feel that it’s of critical importance to our schools and districts that we spotlight the influences of both past and present African American leaders. These leaders have made and continue to make a huge difference in the lives of students in school and beyond. 

The individuals who are the focus of this piece are not only tremendous educators, but also shine in terms of the opportunities that they’ve created for others in such unique ways. There is a great deal of work being brought to the forefront recently regarding equity and agency, which is central to our focus in education and the reason for our selections below. To write this blog, we evoked what we call “standout educators” who have shaped and influenced the three of us as well as countless others. One such person is Booker T. Washington. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, describes the endless struggles that he endured and overcame throughout his life. His own formal educational pursuit, traveling over 500 miles to the Hampton Institute and then forming what is now Tuskegee University, has undoubtedly influenced America. Washington’s desire for a quality education and then the way he dedicated his life to a quality education for others changed our way of thinking forever. 

There are so many African American educators, such as George Washington Carver, who was hired by Washington, who we might feature for both inspiration and aspiration. The Black educators who motivate our efforts and captivate our attention are always the ones who have created the greatest change in our educational system. For the betterment of students, and society at large, they have altered what it means to be a teacher or leader in schools. 

We picked six for this blog, and we encourage you to add 6 more in the comments below. Our point is that there are great Black leaders from the past and the present, making a difference for students in a way that will transcend time. The first three are from the past; the next three are friends and colleagues doing the work today. We learn from the past to make connections to a future that will certainly be better for all kids. All kids. 

What we know about these leaders is that they all have the same three qualities in common, something we wrote about in our Passionate Leadership book. They focus on growth, challenging themselves to be their best at all times. They work hard for the sake of making changes that will last; they never shy away from even the seemingly impossible. And, they maintain a positive outlook, even when things seem bleak or desperate. You can learn from both their accomplishments and what they mean to a profession that shapes the fabric of our American culture. 

Three “Then” Leaders in Education

Our “then leaders” are slightly lesser known than maybe someone we could have highlighted that many people know as African American leaders in the field of education. We wanted to do that on purpose to show the contributions of the unsung heroes of our past and to demonstrate that leadership is important at every level. We never know the impact of the work we’re doing in our small corners of the universe, just that it matters now and we hope our legacy lives for another day. 

Marva Collins — Marva Collins is the first of our “then leaders” in education and Black History Month highlight for educators. Collins was unsatisfied with the education that poor black children received in inner-city public schools so she started a low-cost private school in Chicago. She invested her own money and provided a better education for her students at half the per pupil expenditure of the local schools. She was a leader who paved the way for those of us who want to do something different so that all students succeed. 

Kenneth Bancroft Clark — We celebrate Kenneth Clark as the founder of the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited organization. He was a psychologist who made major contributions to supporting young people, specifically in the methods of social work, psychological evaluations, and more. He was the first African American tenured full professor at the City College of New York. The grand scope of his books, publications, and contribution for educating and supporting young people is practically endless–a real educational hero. 

Edwina B. Kruse — Edwina is among a small group of Delaware educators who were committed to African American students getting a quality education during times of exclusion. She was the first Black principal for the Howard School in Wilmington, and through her leadership, the school became one of academic excellence with a rigorous curriculum for what was then the only high school for Black students in Delaware. A little known fact is that the school was practically a boarding school because students from Delaware’s lower two counties often resided with their teachers, members of the community, and even Edwina herself. 

Three “Now” Leaders in Education

It’s always great to review the history books, and being that it’s Black History Month, the history itself is of importance. But we don’t want to ignore that we have friends and colleagues who are making history. Current black leaders in education are laying the groundwork for the future of what education will look like for our students. They impress us with the work they are doing, and although it was difficult to narrow our selection to three, these folks are nothing but the best at what they do for their schools and districts.  

Cynthia Jewell — We wrote about Jewell in Passionate Leadership, and she has been doing nothing but great work since that book was published. She is focused on her own growth so that she can be a beacon of support for others. Recently, she earned a Dare to Lead certificate from Brene Brown. She leads school admin through a virtual PLC process that has transformed online teaching and learning in her district, and she continues to support principal leadership as the guiding force for improving schools. Cynthia is a powerhouse, and we’re happy to call her a friend. You can connect with Cynthia on Twitter at @CynthiaSJewell

Basil Marin — Dr. Marin is a champion. If you don’t already follow him on Twitter, click here and make that happen. He was a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader and he holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership. His kids-first mentality shines through in every national presentation we’ve seen him conduct, and his focus on equity is making a difference in his school and beyond. You can check out his website here as well. You can connect with Basil on Twitter at @basil_marin

Deirdra Aikens — Simply put, Deirdra Aikens is an impressive educator with an intense resume. She joined us for our Principal Induction Program as a guest speaker, and we’re pretty sure she could have just led the whole evening’s session. She was a principal of a school, a senior director of teaching and learning, and currently serves as deputy assistant superintendent of schools in her district. She’s also a certified Data Wise coach for Harvard Graduate School of Education. She makes a difference across the country, and at home in our great State of Delaware.  

Our “then” and “now” educators are truly impressive and deserve to be recognized and celebrated. The most challenging part of this month’s blog was narrowing our list down to just a few incredible people. One of the joy’s of writing this post was doing the research and uncovering the tremendous “then” educators who have lifted so many students. We know that our “now” educators continue to do the same. 

We want to dedicate this blog to the African-American educators who have left an indelible mark on each of us. If it weren’t for Dr. Sandra Countley, Joe may have never entered into school administration. As a young, novice teacher at Newark High School, Dr. Countley mentored Joe and planted the seed that administration was for him. In a couple short years, Joe was working side-by-side with Dr. Countley at Christiana High where she served as principal and Joe as an assistant principal. Those early formative years of encouragement, support, and belief are guiding principles that continue to motivate him to this day 

In January, the world lost another American icon and we would be remiss if we also didn’t dedicate this post to Hank Aaron who once said, “I am very proud to be an American. This country has so much potential, I’d just like to see things better, or whatever, and I think it will be.” Those words still ring true today, and it is our fervent belief that things will get better because, together, that’s the direction that we will lead.  

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, reflection sessions, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. and our guest blogger w/ us this month is Principal EL (Dr. Salome Thomas-EL) 

No one knew what the devastation of a pandemic would bring in the long run–first graders not knowing how to walk the halls properly or how to manage their materials at a desk. We’ve heard incredible stories of students being oddly possessive of classroom supplies in the younger grades–markers and erasers–trivial things that are readily available. And we’re witness to students up-and-leaving a room without asking in the upper grades–something that they did without asking when they learned from home.  

It’s fascinating to see the skills that are typically taught in schools, yet never captured in any accountability rating or report card, now starkly missing from our students in ways that require tons of attention. This, among other strange byproducts of time away from school, dramatically impacts culture, our well-being, and our abilities. Because we are challenged by such new and different problems in schools these days, we can quickly lose our sense of purpose in what we do. Purpose is such a strong indicator of groundedness that when it’s not clearly defined can bring misery.  

So, as we look within ourselves, we want to approach introspection the best way that we know how, effectively working toward finding our solid ground. Instead of just thinking about ourselves and dwelling on our work or lives, we offer very succinct prompts to begin your professional introspective analysis. 

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      •  I know my purpose at work each day.
      •  My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.

The answer to the first prompt may seem simple and intuitive at first, such as, “Of, course, I know my purpose, I teach. I’m a teacher. My purpose is to impart knowledge.” But, work beyond surface responses that don’t provide the specificity that truly reflects your inner definition of the purpose behind your work. You might come to something like “My purpose is to change lives” or “I plan to influence the system to be more innovative than education typically is.” The grander the statement, the better. Next, ask yourself the second prompt…if your purpose no longer matches your daily activities, you need to reclaim your ground. 

Reclaim Your Ground: Empowerment

No matter what happens, it is within my power to turn it to my advantage.  ~ Epictetus

Once you clearly identify your solid ground, you need to reclaim it. There is serious power in taking control of the things that you can. Despite all of the challenges in schools for teachers and leaders, there are several elements of schooling that we directly impact and that are within our control. A few that we work through in our school leadership training are as follows:

  • Visiting classrooms 
  • Planning with high-yield instructional strategies 
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Empowering teacher leaders 
  • Creating a winning culture
  • Clarifying the vision of the school
  • Praising others and using feedback cycles for school improvement 

The next step is to identify a process goal within a particular area that we can control for the day or week. If classroom management is a challenge, then that can become a clear area of focus. Danielle Doolan, team member of The Career Contessa, which “…helps working women be more fulfilled, healthy, and successful at worktell readers this: 


Process goals are the specific actions we take to increase our chances of achieving our outcome goals. These are the behaviors and strategies that we implement that help us set a path to achieve our desired result. Process goals are 100% controllable.”

This is of vital importance as you work to reclaim your ground. Process goals require specific actions. Those actions are under our direction and control. Determining the specifics of what you work on each day creates a greater sense of calm, connectedness, and confidence (The Three Cs of Empowerment). 

  Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I feel connected to my work.
      • I see the results of my efforts.

Take the time to think about your responses. If you feel connected and you are seeing results, what is contributing to your success? Name it so that it can be repeated. However, if you are reading this and you find yourself disconnected and frustrated, start by identifying a couple goals that you would like to achieve this month and be sure to identify the actions you need to take to reach success. 

With the clarity of our purpose in mind and process goals for taking action, we are ready to bloom. 

Thrive in Your Ground: Blooming

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you. ~ Epictetus

Identifying, finding, and claiming your solid ground will provide the necessary foundation to thrive in work and life. We approach thriving and this journey of development from a different angle than your typical school leadership training. The reality is that we don’t see the effects of all of our decisions right away. Development takes time and is actually a practice of redundancy and habit formation. Thriving can actually seem uneventful at first for those who love to start and try new things. Setting and starting activities and initiatives is fun, but the real work is in the day-to-day activities that will bear the fruit of our labor. 

This pursuit and drive forward flourishes in what Jim Collins describes as The Hedgehog Concept versus what he explains to be the work of the fox. The fox, “[is] scattered, diffused, and inconsistent, while the hedgehog understands that driving toward a concrete destination is what really works.” Thriving is focused and consistent; something that many of us struggle with in a time when so much has changed and so much is still uncertain. Disillusionment is born from doubt, skepticism, and suspicion about which direction we’re going and why. We get back on track when we find our inspiration and we rekindle our passion. 

Consider the following questions regarding how your purpose is congruent with you developing and growing in your role–thriving for the future.

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
      • I am passionate about my daily purpose.

We find inspiration in the people with whom we work, not just because they’re doing the work but because they want to get better at it. In all of our findings, readings, and trainings, we’ve realized that the most passionate people are inspired by the company they keep and the strategies they use as a team to improve. We call that a learning culture and a performance culture because it’s based on continuous improvement and a desire to do whatever we can to find success. We also recommend that leaders measure purpose and other aspects of school culture so that we can lead from a point of our strengths and work on the areas that require our attention. 

Assessing School Culture with REPSS

In our book, Building A Winning Team, we developed TheSchoolHouse302 Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools (REPSS) to measure a school’s culture using the perceptions of the staff. This process can create greater levels of clarity, trust, accountability, support, growth, and innovation in schools–all indicators of highly supportive, effective, and caring cultures.

This month we are completely focused on the purpose aspect of the survey because it sets the stage and tone for the other areas. You’ll find some of the reflection questions throughout the blog post and below as well. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions/prompts to fully unveil your purpose and consider the power in knowing the aggregate answers that your school community might post if they took this survey together. What might you do with that data as someone who wants to lead better and grow faster? After all, if things aren’t as good as they should be…or could be…then we have work to do. 


Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools


  • I know my purpose at work each day.
  • My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.
  • I feel connected to my work.
  • I see the results of my efforts. 
  • I tell a positive story about my workplace. 
  • The school brand communicated to the public is the same as the culture I experience as a professional. 
  • Our school’s core values are so clear that I know what is expected of me on a daily basis.
  • I find the work I do rewarding. 
  • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
  • I am passionate about my daily purpose. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.


TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.


Joe & T.J. 


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  1. Diannia Miller

    Wow and Bravo is all I can say! Thank you so much for this article

  2. Kathlene D Hickman

    Thank you for bring to the forefront black leaders from out own district who have made a difference and are continuing to do so. Diedre was a great choice to begin with. I remembered being marveled with the knowledge and expertise she shared being a part of the Delaware Writers Workshop initiative some 20 years ago. I got to experience her kind, honest leadership as assistant principal. And I am happy to see her become the second in command of our School District.
    If you need another important black leader who grew up in Christina School District, please include Dr. Freeman Williams. As an educator of elementary students, I am positive the most important contribution he made that really changed the culture of our classrooms, were the “Freeman Four” Many teachers continue to use the Freeman Four in their classrooms today as a way to have a calm atmosphere which benefits learning for the whole class.


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