One-on-One with Jordan Elliott

by Abe Asher

Last Friday, I sat down with Upper School Head Jordan Elliott for a wide-ranging interview on a number of topics, including teacher pay, his career path, his future at the school, and more.

Do teachers get paid enough?

My immediate answer is no. But to clarify, I don’t think teachers get paid enough in general in this country. We as an American society face this perplexing problem where we don’t value education.

At OES, relative to independent schools, we use a scale to make sure we’re competitive with other options teachers have. We have a published scale, because it would be a possibly unfair and uncomfortable system if teachers were negotiating their salaries individually with me or Mo.

My belief is that before the Great Recession, the public schools’ pay was higher than ours. But through that, PPS kept their scale frozen while we kept growing ours. The other thing is that compensation is a bigger puzzle than what you’re paid. The public employee system is a very rich system. But we’ve put a lot of resources in increasingly the benefits here as well.

We have reduced the cost that people who have families have to pay for the school insurance. This year, we announced that starting in 2015-16 everyone who works at school will get tuition remission — which means that if you’re an employee of any kind, you only have to pay half of tuition. In the past, only teaching faculty got those benefits. We’ve tried to make our benefits equal and not make a distinction between faculty and staff.

When did you come back to OES?

My first year was 2001. September 11th, 2001 was the first day of classes that year. As a religion major who focused on Islam, that was very intense. I was an intern and dorm parent. I got up, had breakfast in the dining hall, went back to my apartment, turned on my TV, and the rest was just a blur. I don’t have much specific memory after that. I just watched it unfold like everyone else.

I was 22 when I started here, and I was growing up through those years. I was coaching, I was teaching, I was in the dorms — I was here all the time. All the time.

Were you surprised to get this job — which most in this industry would consider a destination job — so young?

Can’t be surprised if you really want it. I would hope that the decision was made, and my work will speak for itself. But age is part of my identity in this job.

Has it been awkward with you managing your former teachers?

One of the reasons I have this job is because of them. My hope is that for people like Gary, Joel, Colleen, Diane — the list goes on and on — they feel a sense of satisfaction that a person they taught has gone on to this role.

Was it hard to be so young when you started?

Even in that moment when I started, if I was thinking about how old I was, that was going to influence the way I acted in conversations with people. I didn’t pretend to know everything, but I was really dedicated to work. It cuts both ways, but my hope is that a school community, we’d value the work of a young person just as much as an older person.

One of the reasons I’m still here is that people here were willing to work with someone who was so young.

What keeps you interested in doing this job?

My mind is always oriented towards what’s the next challenge. What’s kept me going in this job is that I’ve been able to work in challenging environments.

It’s the same title, but it’s not the same job. At the beginning, my work was only in the Upper School. Now, a lot of my work has to do with the whole school — and that’s great. That’s an example of a challenge that keeps me interested.

How did you choose to attend OES as a student?

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, I realized that I had interest in challenges I wasn’t getting at my middle school.

I would have gone to Grant. I visited, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was interested in a different kind of environment, and they [my parents] came across the ad for the Open House in the newspaper.

We came to the Open House and were totally blown away. We just kind of went for it. We knew that if I got in, we’d go. I probably would have gone to Lincoln had I not gotten in here.

Is there any part of you that wants to move on from working at your own high school?

What’s most important for me is challenge. When things feel really comfortable, I’ll start wondering if this is the right place for me. But that hasn’t come up. I’m not the same person I’m here when I’m older.

There’s a risk to the community that you become too insulated. I think there are nice counter-measures against that. As our mission states, we’re about local and global communities. I’ve tried to push myself outside of OES. I led four international Winterim trips in my first six or seven years. That was a huge growth thing for me. Since being in this job, I’ve tried to do my professional development in a way that pushes that. That keeps your perspective nimble.

How has the school changed since you were a student? 

The school is much bigger now, but there’s a core ethos at this place that is the same. You go to Medea and you think, ‘that’s so OES.’ Panini club, hiking club, — so OES. Those are the same kinds of things that happened when I was a student. It’s an evolution.

They’re all challenging in different ways. I definitely felt the transition out of teaching, or being an administrator, and this job is much harder, but it’s about how you’re going to respond.

How hard was it to give up teaching? How well do you feel students know you?

Philosophically, that was a goal of mine that everyone teach.  Students are pretty intuitive and have a pretty good read. The hardest part of stepping away from teaching is losing those relationships with students. Still, I have student council, my advisory, Life in Community, Aardvark 101 — those are all little opportunities to teach. I don’t think students have a good idea of what my job is, but I’m always interested in getting feedback.

Has there been a recent emphasis on hiring younger teachers?

We’ve made an effort to hire younger teachers, and that’s been strategic. One third of our teachers at OES will retire in the next five to ten years.

Many of the recent major hires — Deri Bash in the dorms, Jenny Cleveland as chaplain, Ann Sulzer as middle school head — have come from inside the community. Why?

It’s not just circumstantial. In general, we have — not recently, this is more like 10, 20 years ago — been more interested in outside candidates. A teacher who was here from a long time talked about why did we have to go outside to figure out who we are. You don’t want to become insular, but my bias is if you have someone inside who is prepared, there are a lot of benefits to that.

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