Tell Me Something Good: Jennifer Stern, Great MN Schools

In celebration of our third year of partnership with educators seeding positive change, we’re highlighting three examples of the work being done by incredible school districts, charter school networks and non-profits. We sat down to talk with three fascinating leaders about who inspires them, what they’re looking forward to this year, and what keeps them going when things get hard. 

Jennifer Stern, CEO, Great MN Schools

What’s your morning routine like?

On a good day, waking up and exercising. Then getting ready for work, waking up my daughter and getting her ready for school, and making coffee. On a bad day, it’s hitting the snooze button nine times and getting up just in time to throw on clothes and get out the door.

What’s the best thing you did to relax and have fun this summer?

An Alaskan cruise!

Tell me about one of your personal heroes. 

I have to say Michelle Obama because she’s a career woman who is also great mom, and has stayed true to who she is and her voice. 

How did you get your start in education, and what did you do before that?

I spent 10 years in the business sector, and realized that I wanted to do work that was more impactful. I looked at several industries, and New York City was just starting to consider broader education reform. I joined the department of education to transform human resources and improve the customer experience for 135,000 employees. It was trial by fire, starting at the biggest district in the country. 

What is your most important strength as a leader?

People most often tell me my most important strength is strategic thinking. Being able to create clarity around work and what needs to happen. Defining and setting a course. 

What advice would you give to young people working in education or thinking of joining the profession? 

To people thinking of joining, make sure you understand that your career may be long and take lots of twists and turns. You may want to start in a place with the resources and systems to develop you; you can always go into education later. Come in with the right role and the right skills and experiences behind you; don’t feel rushed.

To those already working in education: Cherish the small wins. The journey is a really hard one and takes a long time.  

The past year has been very successful for Great MN Schools. What are some of the moments that stand out in your memory, and why?

We worked with a school on growth plan. At first they were hesitant, but after working with the leader and the board, they decided to expand from serving 300 students to 1,200. The planning process is what made them realize they had that vision and community demand, and that was what they were meant to do. It felt great that the process helped them step back and think about their purpose and service to the community.

We had a different kind of experience with a turnaround school where the process didn’t go well. It sits with me about how hard this work is and how hard it is to put kids at the center of decision-making. Including when the decisions are impacting adults who are working really hard and have relationships with those students and care about them. But their interests don’t always line up with kids’ needs. The tensions are real, and legitimate. 

What were some of the most significant challenges you faced? Were any of those challenges a surprise?

This one, the turnaround situation, surprised me. Even though the Board wanted to do the right thing for kids, the status quo is so hard to move. Without accountability systems in place, the feeling that we have to change because someone’s making us, the pressures can be too strong. I had thought that if everybody in charge wanted to do the right thing that they could. Politics is bigger.  

When the work gets really hard, how do you remain committed and invigorated?

In the short-term, by going home and spending time with my family. Longer-term, by taking intentional time for reflection thinking about what we could do differently and making an action plan. Then it doesn’t feel just like a failure; it feels like stumble that we will learn from and will inform our work going forward.

Springboard Communications led Great MN Schools in developing its brand — conducting stakeholder engagement and developing their foundational messaging, visual identity and website. Click here to check out a brief case study of our partnership, and say hello today!