Sanford Johnson from Clarksdale, MS, has served in the education sector for 17 years. An Auburn University alum, when he left Mississippi, he thought he’d never return. However, once he interned with Senator Thad Cochran and learned about the politics of the state, he became unyieldingly pro-Mississippi and wanted to fix what was broken, which led to his involvement in educational policy.
Johnson is the new Executive Director of a teaching policy fellowship called Teach Plus Mississippi. His first test was stepping into his new role on the same day COVID-19 exploded in the state. However, Johnson is no stranger to navigating challenges; he spent 11 years in educational policy and co-founded “Mississippi First,” where he kindled his passion for advocacy, which equipped him with the leadership tools to handle tough situations.
Teach Plus Mississippi trains and empowers teachers to effect change in educational policy. The organization trains a new cohort of teacher fellows each year. The most recent group of teacher fellows surveyed 2400 teachers to figure out how to best prepare to educate in the new COVID world via virtual learning. In addition to this, they also focus on supporting greater stimulus funding.
Sanford believes the greatest challenge educators in Mississippi face is that policy doesn’t align with reality. Behind policy, there are leadership, resources, revenue, and priorities that need to reflect the true Mississippi classroom experience. Sanford states the schools are crops that haven’t been planted and watered to change Mississippi’s low educational ranking in the country, so Teach Plus focuses on how to invest in schools and prepare teachers, specifically on how to address education in places where access to high quality education hasn’t been an option, and to find out whether the curriculum is setting students up for success.
Since Sanford started with Teach Plus as the pandemic was ramping up, interactions with the community have been limited, but there’s been plenty of time to converse with teachers, and those conversations have been auspicious. He found that there is a legion of teachers in the community, highly qualified and motivated to see the state move towards its potential. In addition to building relationships with teachers, he’s been doing the same with education policymakers, executives of organizations, principals, superintendents, and legislators to reintroduce them to Teach Plus, learn their priorities, and strategize to move Mississippi up the ladder.
Sanford’s greatest success so far has been to connect alums with the newest fellows. His job is to make sure there’s a seamless jump from one cohort to another. He’s also been able to help place educators in positions where they can make a difference, such as appointing three of them to become senior fellows and hiring two of them to the national policy board. Additionally, he has connected teachers with interview opportunities and is working with a consultant in Arkansas to replicate the initiative there as well, taking steps ensure quality education for students from state to state.
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