Interview with James Johnston

The following is a Q & A between James Johnston and me.

Photo from Oregonian Times

James Johnston is the Principal of Alice Ott Middle School and the 2013 Oregon Middle School Principal of the Year.

My goal in posting interviews with successful leaders like James is to inspire us to reflect on how our own choices, goals, and actions can affect our lives, our leadership, and our teams. I must also give credit to John Lee Dumas whose great podcast interview questions I have modified for the Q & A’s I have with my guests.

WDP: Thanks for the opportunity to learn from you! Can you start by sharing your favorite success or motivational quote?
James: I like the quote, “Champions Find A Way.”

WDP: How have you use the idea contained in your favorite quote to affect your school or organization’s leadership?
James: My staff has taken on this mantra of finding a way to help each and every student succeed. No more excuses about poverty, race, lack of resources,… We will succeed.

WDP: Take us back to a failure or obstacle you overcame. How did you do it?
James: As the new principal at AOMS in 2008, I discovered that we had some great teachers and an awesome office team but quickly realized that we did not have a shared mission and a clear picture of what quality literacy instruction meant, not to mention that we had no strategic plan to help struggling readers.

I am not sure we could even define which students were not at benchmark. Our team worked to set up positive systems and infrastructure while being sensitive to the fact that the whole culture was about to change. We visited multiple schools, researched programs, and took on the task of guiding the staff toward a tiered reading model as well as a structural change to the schedule. We began slowly and built on small successes, gaining momentum and staff support.

WDP: That’s awesome. Share with us how taking some risks has created great results.
James: We had to make tough decisions to double our math and reading instruction. This meant that struggling learners would have to learn the basics before earning extra electives. The structure used to give all kids three electives even if they could not read. While we got some resistance, those decisions and risks taken have proven to be critical to our turnaround with achievement.

WDP: Can you give an example of an “aha!” moment where you realized a key truth that turned into a success?
James: Early in my tenure at AOMS as the new principal, my PTO president told me that she had to take her son to Sylvan a few years earlier to learn to read because the school wasn’t teaching him. I believed that this should not happen. We built a team with this same parent on the committee to develop a reading plan to address this problem. We don’t want any parent ever saying that about our school.

WDP: Have you had an “I’ve made it” moment?
James: We were labeled the only “Model” middle school in the state of Oregon last year. When I was first hired at the school, we were worried about sanctions, and now other schools are visiting us to see our infrastructure.

WDP: What was holding you back from seeing the high levels of success you have been experiencing for years now?
James: When I first came to the school, I noticed a lack of vision, infrastructure, and co-responsibility. Now, high achievement is part of our culture and reputation.

WDP: What is the best leadership advice you have ever received?
James: “What you feed grows….what you starve dies.”

WDP: What is something that is working for you or your team right now?
James: Our Soar to Success program to reach struggling readers has been an incredible success.

WDP: Do you have a resource that you just love that you would recommend to other leaders?
James: Classroom Instruction That Works by Robert Marzano.

WDP: If you could recommend a book for other school leaders, what would it be?
James: The book of Proverbs in the Bible. Lots of wisdom in there.

WDP: If you could speak to the 20 year-old version of yourself, what advice would you give him or her?
James: Keep the faith. There will be many obstacles, but stay true and it will play out in the end. Don’t stress over negative people.

WDP: A huge thanks to James Johnston for sharing his insights into school leadership with us! If you want to connect with James, you can find him via his Alice Ott Middle School website.

Now It’s Your Turn:
James saw change when he was willing to change his school culture, accepting no excuses for student failure. What are some steps you or your team are taking to turn around struggling students at your school? Share with the rest of us!

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker