TLP: Dr. Kerry Jacobson, Shanghai American School

TLP: Dr. Kerry Jacobson, Shanghai American School
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As I’ve had the opportunity to meet with peers at other international schools, it seems that so many international educators come from either Washington, or Minnesota, my home state.  Although I’m sure the world of international ED benefits from all the high-IQ WA expats, Minnesota and the Midwest continue to export good-ole fashion kindness.  Where I’m from we actually call it “Minnesota-nice.” Although Dr. Kerry Jacobson, Superintendent at Shanghai American School, originally comes from Wisconsin, he spent a large chunk of his career in Minnesota before moving overseas, and it seems some of the state’s niceties have “rubbed off.”

Despite a demanding schedule overseeing a school population above 3000, Dr. Jacobson was not only nice enough to meet with me in the busy month of May, but also put-up with a weak Skype connection—and he did it all with a big smile.  As we talked Kerry spoke of the importance of bridging the complex differences between stakeholders at our schools.  He went on to explain that although it’s important to be focused in our execution of purpose, so much of what we do relies on our ability to connect, empathies and be nice with others.  As a proud Midwesterner, I’d like to think his success as a leader might be traced back to his time in Minnesota.

You’ve spent most of your career in US public Schools, what has been the most drastic difference between leading a public school and an international school like SAS?

First off, I have to say that I am a big advocate for American public education “[in fact] I think American public education is one of the greatest institutions on the face of the planet.  On the other hand [it seems with] what’s happening…it’s becoming more difficult to be fully engaged as a teacher, not to overstate that…” but there are certainly so many external pressures that can interfere with a classroom back in the states, that aren’t a concern for teachers at SAS.  “[For example] you can’t beat the class sizes around here and…[the caliber] of kids we serve is excellent.”

“The biggest difference that I notice…is the lack of media scrutiny”…in the states board meetings and other aspects of the school would be very public, maybe even televised.  Everyone in the community is a stakeholder, even if they have no children in the school.  Here all of our major stakeholders have children in the school and everybody cares about “what’s in the best interest of the children.”

“[Also] I notice the more favorable lack of regulations…that doesn’t mean that we do things that differently…[but] we are truly an independent school” and determine our own benchmarks, guidelines and priorities.

Have you always had an interest in international education?

I’ve been familiar with international schools for a long time, and always wanted the opportunity to work at an overseas school.  Although with 6 kids, my wife and I decided to wait until after they finished school.  In fact once our youngest graduated from the University of Minnesota, it wasn’t more then a few days before we were flying to China to interview for this position.

What specific set of skills do you bring to a school?

I think two practical skills I have include “a background in strategic planning leadership…[which I’ve been] doing for organizations both in and out of schools.”  Also I have a background in educational finance, which helps me understand and provide experienced leadership on some of the bigger financial issues, while also understanding the small details too.

Lastly, I’ve had a lot of people point out my interpersonal skills, which can be very helpful in a complex organization, so that you can keep “people talking…and growing, which is very important in a large community that is constantly changing.”

Where have you seen your greatest personal development as a leader?

One of the reasons I was excited to come to Shanghai was that I am “very much interested in my own learning and development”…and I’ve found that SAS provides such a robust opportunity to learn as a professional. 

However, before arriving here I believe a strong tool for my development has been learning through the different experiences I’ve had as an educator.  What’s helped me through these experiences is “The ability to stay positive, but also stay focused.”

“These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive… [but I think as a leader it’s important to have] the ability to be resilient, on the one hand, and not take yourself to personally…stay positive, stay upbeat…and on the other hand stay focused.”

What challenges have you needed to overcome in your position because you’re new to the region?

I don’t know if I’d call them challenges but interesting opportunities.  “One of the aspects is dealing more with people’s personal lives, more than I would in the states.  We’re used to dealing with the students and parents lives, but here we have to worry about retaining the best teachers” and we have to consider the different personal issues that wouldn’t intersect with work back home, especially as people overcome the cultural gap.

 “[It seems] you find yourself asking people more about their personal lives here…because they’re not likely to have that immediate family network.”

SAS continues to grow in Shanghai, but certainly for this growth to be successful you need a great team, what’s your greatest priority when choosing administrators?

I am always looking for people “who can translate our [school’s] mission into action and learning.”  As a part of our mission statement we hope to inspire students to create a life long passion for learning, a commitment to act with integrity and passion, and courage to live out your dreams.  When we find people who can embody these ideas, we create powerful models for our students.

Once you have these people, how do you continue to develop their talent?

“We have one of the most robust professional development programs I’ve witnessed…I’m just amazed by the opportunities here…we bring the top people in the world to work with our teachers.”  I think we offer a competitive compensation package, but we’ve found that among the real great teachers, opportunities for development is what they care about.

At the end of the year, when you reflect, what makes you feel like the year has been a success?

Like most schools we do lots of surveying and looking at data, student feedback to teachers, and of course test results…then we lay it aside, and at the end of the year we get together as an administrative team and ask how it went.  That conversation might only last an hour or so, and then we move on.  “I’m a believer that you don’t look back too far, because you have way too much work to do ahead.”

“I [believe you can’t]…spend too much time looking back…life for me is living in the moment and looking to the future.”

Do you have any advice for the next generation of aspiring international ED administrators?

“Keep challenging yourself to learn something new all the time”

“Learn from those that you respect, and learn from those that are different from you”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.”

“Take some risks and don’t be afraid to jump a little bit.”

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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