John Ross: The Unexpected Educator

For Black History Month, AFSA is proudly spotlighting a few of the women and men who lead our nation's public schools. Please join us in celebrating our colleagues during this important month.

Education was not John Ross’s first career choice. Although his mother had been a teacher, his father, an engineer, John was fascinated by law and law enforcement. After earning his B.A. from Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the most prestigious historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the country, he began preparing for law back home, at the University of San Diego.

“I wasn’t happy at all,” he said, “and when I ran into a woman who told me about a $5,000 stipend being awarded to Black males to go into teaching, I jumped at it and got a teaching credential.”

That burst of excitement waned. He was young and still unconvinced. Instead of teaching, he enrolled at the San Diego 26th Regional Police Academy at San Diego Miramar College. For a year, he worked as a police officer in a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood.  All his training officers were White and, he says, “We ran into all these juveniles and took them in, incarcerating these young men who looked like me.” In the best of circumstances, they took them home to their parents for a second chance.

One memorable night, he was the only person of color among the officers when they were called about an extremely raucous party. “When we got there, we were so obviously outnumbered,” he said. He sensed an atmosphere that could have quickly become volatile. “I was so worried that things wouldn’t turn out well and I said, ‘Let’s just tell them to turn the music down.’ That’s what we did, and it worked.”

His instincts and approach were often different from his fellow officers’.  “I hope it made a difference, but I can’t say for sure,” he says. “I just knew I couldn’t stay on that side of things.”

Besides, by then, he had a wife and two young daughters. Policing was taking too much time from his children: “I wanted to be sure they stayed on the right track.”

He found a teaching job at San Diego’s Lincoln High School, where the principal assigned him to focus on severely at-risk students, who were taught in 3 bungalows out in the school yard. 

“I was in my early twenties and the kids were my size,” he says, “I thought, if I can survive this, I can survive anything.”

Many of the students weren’t reading at grade level, so he employed strategies he had been learning on his own and would soon introduce to his daughters, Maurisia and Nile, turning their home into a schoolhouse, complete with whiteboards. As for the Lincoln students, their reading deficit reminded him of himself. He was haunted by the humiliation of having been a slow reader in elementary school. 

It wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at Morehouse that his reading life really took off. “There was Dr. Rahming, an extraordinary teacher, who got me to read from cover to cover.” It was the first time he’d encountered Black authors and he was moved by many, including Langston Hughes, Olaudah Equiano and, most of all, by Frederick Douglass, who taught himself to read while enslaved.

At Lincoln, John made such an impact on students that within a few months “I was pigeonholed as a high school teacher of challenging students, but my heart was with the little ones like my own daughters,” he says.

At first, he encountered barriers when he tried to transfer to an elementary school.  But he refused to take no for an answer until he was appointed a K–4 teacher, with a particular emphasis in literacy intervention, at Mead Elementary School, where most of the students were children of color and “the teachers weren’t reflective of the student demographic group.”

Once there, John connected with the students through his own experience of being a fourth grader who had to take his books to a third grade reading class every day. He told them how he placed scratch ‘n sniff stickers all over his book and sniffed them to console himself during his humiliating march down the hall.

As the only Black teacher, and the only male, he allowed other teachers to observe his classes.  They wondered why the children felt close to him. “It’s about building relationships,” he says. “At that school, I was in heaven. I sent homework home Monday through Thursday. All my first graders read at grade level.  And some of my kindergarten students were beginning to read as well.”

John’s journey led him back to Atlanta for a period of time, “but my heart called me back home.”  He returned to San Diego and found himself teaching at Lincoln again, where he started a program working with 9th grade boys who were credit deficient. The following year he was made dean of students and, three years later, assistant principal.

Because of the grueling workload of a principal, he didn’t initially aspire to be one. But he soon let the superintendent talk him into being interim acting principal at Lincoln High School.  In the end, he became full-time principal. John Ross’s life never worked out exactly according to plan. 

“I had no regrets being at the helm,” he says. “I saw I had an impact on instruction and culture and I really felt good about that".

He attributes his fortitude to strong parents who raised their children in the church. He says, “Without that foundation to guide me, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done. I stay grounded in the Word.”

Today, John is the program manager of the district’s Placement and Appeals Department, where he is responsible for guiding site administrators through the process of implementing interventions that reduce suspension and expulsion rates among at-risk students. He describes the work as hard, sometimes frustrating—and rewarding when a breakthrough is achieved. As he says, “We are working to counter years of practices that were built on zero tolerance policies and philosophies.” 

John says he is learning to lead with the kind of love and patience that has been instilled in him all his life by mentors and supervisors, past and present. Along the way, he has learned to be supportive in guiding professionals to adopt new practices that may be contrary to their established practices. 

“My mentors have taught me to respond with respect for their point of view, to listen and to hope to bring folks along,” he says.

As a district administrator, overseeing student disciplinary cases, he doesn’t often get to see the normal interactions that occur on a school campus. He draws hope from occasional student contact and from time spent with his teenage son, Justus. 

“I get a kick out of watching him race motorcycles and listening to lyrics he’s written” he says, 

“But I really miss the daily interaction within the school and the classroom, and seeing the light bulb turn on in the kids’ eyes after they discover their own gifts.”