Independent Spirit: José M. De Jesús

Fall 2019

José M. De JesúsJosé M. De Jesús, Head of School, Lake Forest Academy (IL)

Head of School
Lake Forest Academy
Lake Forest, Illinois
Photo by George Pfoertner
My plan could not have been simpler. As a history major coming out of Wesleyan University, I would teach for three years at Concord Academy (MA), study for the LSAT, and then make lots of money as a lawyer. My mom, a former professor, dissuaded me from a career in education. My uncle thought I needed to put my prep school education to more lucrative use. I could already see the wood paneling of future courtrooms.
On my second day of teaching at Concord, my U.S. history students read an article on the debate about who fired the first shot of the Revolutionary War. The students were perplexed: How could something as fundamental as who started the war not be known?
So I enlisted one of my students, Ethan, to come into class 10 minutes late the next day. I told him that I would give him a hard time, and we’d get into an argument, which would lead me to send him to the dean’s office. A couple of hours later, Ethan walked into class 10 minutes late. As planned, the argument escalated, and upon Ethan’s departure, one could hear a pin drop. I asked the 16 students to write honestly about what just occurred so I could take it to the dean. Once they were done, I asked Ethan to come back into the room. We gave each other a high five, and he took his seat.
The students were shocked. I asked, “How many of you think that I started this fight?” Half of their hands went up. “How many think Ethan started it?” The other half went up. “Then tell me this: How could a historian ever make a clear determination of what happened here? How would they know who fired the first shot? Sound familiar?”
At the end of class, three students lined up, each wanting to tell me that it was the best class they had ever had. Every teacher knows that look of wonder and revelation that helps fuel us every day. This school valued learning for its own sake, believing in the creativity of a 22-year-old teacher and providing a space where I could be myself so early in my career. It helped me realize that I needed to trade in the vision of wood-paneled courtrooms for much sunnier classrooms. And I’ve never looked back.
I’ve been fortunate throughout my career in independent schools to be at institutions that have allowed me to be my best self. My career has followed my passions and interests rather than predetermined rungs of a ladder. My ability to work well with students in crisis led me to become a dean. My interest in international education and service learning led me to be an outreach director. My love for working with adolescents led me to run an upper school. And my love for mentoring and working with teams led me to headship. It’s been a privilege to follow my heart and mind, engaging each opportunity with an almost spiritual zeal. I wake up with a purpose rare for many people my age, a purpose that can be traced to that sunny day of teaching at Concord.
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