Jesse Bacon is a school leader with a passion for helping students find relevancy in what they learn. He often challenges the status quo and helps others push the boundaries of the teaching and learning process.
Bacon was raised in eastern Kentucky, graduating from Fleming County High School in 1999. Today, he is a husband, father, and middle school principal in his hometown. This summer, his family will be heading to western Kentucky for his new role as superintendent of Bullitt County Schools. At the same time, he is wrapping up his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) via online courses from the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership Studies.
His pursuit of a doctoral degree stems from his desire to never stop learning, as well as a personal imperative to help schools prepare future generations of students for careers in a rapidly changing job market.
Bacon says once an organization establishes a vision for what they want to be, it’s all about devoting the time, attention, and resources toward achieving that vision. This is a philosophy he uses in his career, but also in the way he has focused his life.
Bacon’s background and career are an embodiment of a fundamental theme in UK’s graduate degree programs for principals, superintendents, and other school leaders. The world is changing at a faster pace than ever before. To continue to provide kids a chance to be competitive in a shrinking world, school leaders must stay current, say the UK faculty in the educational leadership program.
“I love Kentucky, and I want to see it prosper for generations to come, but the only way that is going to happen is through a robust and relevant public education system,” Bacon said. “The leaders who never stop learning and continue to further their education and push the boundaries of what we think is possible are the ones who are transforming schools. And seeing what that means for students and their families is a joy that is indescribable. We should all want that for the schools in our community.”
Bacon has spent time as a social studies teacher, athletic coach, central office program director, high school assistant principal, as well as a high school and middle school principal. He completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Morehead State University. He has participated in leadership programs across the country, and when it came to pursuing a doctorate, he had several options in mind.
“I was genuinely impressed with the research interests and experiences of the faculty in our program,” Bacon said. “As I got further into the application process and got a chance to meet with the UK faculty individually and as a group, I enjoyed being around them and just became excited about the opportunity to work with them and learn from them.”
UK’s Ed.D. students are often located across the U.S. and use their jobs in schools as the real-world basis for their research and goals.
“It was important for me to find a program that I could complete while doing my job,” Bacon said. “The way the program is structured allowed me to do that while tending to the growth opportunities that are present in our organization. In essence, the program allowed me to receive research and clinical support from the University of Kentucky while making our organization better. It was a win-win.”
The doctorate is structured so cohorts progress through the program together. They engage in lively online class discussions, learning from each other while becoming a team striving to make an impact in education. Later, they often serve as a professional network for each other as they navigate challenges and work to lead and transform schools.
“I love working with other people,” Bacon said. “Even though our research interests are different, it has been great working with a consistent group of brilliant educational leaders from around the country. We have become like family in many ways.”
Bacon says that Dr. John Nash’s course on design thinking has probably had the most significant impact on changing the way he thinks. Design thinking promotes the idea that it is best to fail fast in order to reach success sooner. While it promotes action, rather than discussion-based work, it also relies on leaders to solicit and gather feedback from the people who will be affected by decisions.
“Soliciting feedback has always been an essential part of my practice but putting that into the context of a user-centric design cycle complete with rapid prototyping, reflection and refinement has completely changed the way I think about attacking problems,” Bacon said. “That class also really helped me see how all of the leadership courses that we take in the program work together and build off each other.”
Now in his final year of doctoral work, Bacon has been focused on diving into his research.
“The faculty in our methods courses have been phenomenal about walking us through the process of action research and helping us to frame it in our organizational context,” he said. “It has been interesting hearing about my classmates’ research problems and seeing how they relate to the early coursework we did around the leadership core.”
With the dynamic and complex issues school leaders face, Bacon and two of his education colleagues (in California and North Carolina) were inspired to write a book to serve as a blueprint for other leaders on the same path.
“The book provides strategies that any school can attempt and practical examples that illustrate how to make transformation actually happen,” Bacon said. “We offer a framework for identifying gaps in school improvement that allows a leader or a teacher to walk into any school, identify the areas in need of improvement, and find a plethora of strategies related to those areas.”
They haven’t stopped with just the book. They are trying to build a community of educators who are either currently engaged or wish to become involved in transforming schools into highly innovative learning organizations. They have created a website (https://caneveryschoolsucceed.weebly.com/) where school leaders can sign up to receive the Daily School Transformation Playbook, a newsletter with ideas and strategies. They also host a weekly #bendingED twitter chat on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. EST where they have a rich discussion about school transformation and bending constructs to improve education for all students.
“Today’s teachers, staff, and students need visionary school leaders who are willing to serve others, help others to achieve higher levels of excellence, and know how to engage others in the change process,” Bacon said. “Change is not easy, neither is creating a culture based on a collaborative, shared decision-making process. Collaboration and shared decision-making are pillars of school transformation; both lead to engagement and empowerment. School leaders need an army of teachers and staff members who want to be leaders in school, ready to step up to the plate and to help ensure that the transformation process results in improved student success, improved teacher and school leader effectiveness, and school-wide change.”
To learn more about Bacon’s book “Can Every School Succeed?,” visit https://caneveryschoolsucceed.weebly.com.
To apply to a graduate program in the UK Department of Educational Leadership Studies, visit https://education.uky.edu/edl/.