The most valuable lesson Melissa Jones Clarke ever received was from a friend she’d invited to work as a substitute at one of her schools. At the time, Clarke felt that something was off — not only at the school, but in her career — and she needed an outside perspective. So, she turned to her friend, Marguerite Johnson, a seasoned teacher from Gwinnett County, who worked in special education.
“[I said,] ‘I need you to check this culture for me,’” Clarke recounts of approaching Johnson. “‘I don’t want anyone to know our connection, and I want you to give me feedback in five days at your house, no holds barred.’”
Johnson agreed. But when the fifth day rolled around, Clarke wasn’t sure she was ready to hear what her friend had to say. Johnson didn’t hold back. “I showed up. I received that feedback — she had like, three hours’ worth and gave it to me,” Clarke recalls.
“But she gave it to me out of love, and she said to me, ‘You have got to realize that you need those people in the building, and they need you. And when you’re at school, you form a family. And sometimes it’s dysfunctional, sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes it’s funky.’”
While Johnson’s tough love approach made her advice challenging to receive, the sincerity of her friend’s message left a lasting impression — and so did its bottom line: If something doesn’t feel right, steer clear of it.
Clarke, who received her bachelor’s in elementary education from Ohio University followed by her master’s in education leadership from National Louis University, got her start teaching in Africa during a summer in college.
“It was such an experience traveling through Johannesburg during apartheid,” she shares. After her initial experience as an educator — teaching English to fifth-graders in Swaziland — Clarke was hooked. She went on to earn her master’s, and from there, she taught at a school in Atlanta. By the time she was 27, she took over her first school as principal in Rockford, Illinois.
During her time there, she had no assistant principal. Later, she learned she was the school’s fifth principal in three years. But Rockford was just the first in a series of challenges she encountered as she was getting her start. Upon returning to Georgia, Clarke took over a school where she soon learned teachers had been sleeping in their classrooms.
She began an overhaul of the school, bringing in several teachers who were truly committed to their roles — “rock stars,” she says — and during her first year there, the school outperformed seven of the nine elementary schools in the area. What’s more, the school’s staff earned a Governor’s Award for making the most gains.
While the school continued to improve under her leadership, Clarke felt pulled to work in one of Atlanta’s urban schools. Luckily, her call was answered: Clarke was chosen to be the founding principal of a school operated by National Heritage Academies, the latter for which she now serves as the Manager of Board Relations.
The school, Atlanta Heights Charter School in Georgia, would prove to be significant in Clarke’s career. When she first started there, over 90 percent of the students between second and fifth grade were two to four years below grade level.
Clarke’s mother was puzzled as to why she would leave the school she’d worked so hard to improve only to start from scratch, Clarke’s answer was simple. “I said, ‘If I don’t, who will? Who will do it?’ Because it’s not easy, but it’s possible.”
When you’re at school, you form a family—
and sometimes it’s dysfunctional, sometimes it’s amazing,
sometimes it’s funky.
So, how has Clarke taken care of herself during her time in education? By making sure to keep friends like Marguerite Johnson around her. “Make sure you’ve got people around you [who are] like-minded. They don’t have to be like, lockstep, [just] like-minded.”
The feedback Johnson gave Clarke that day also encouraged her to combat a phenomenon that women — especially Black women, and especially those in education — are too often forced to contend with: superwoman syndrome, or the notion that a woman should maintain a successful career, care for her family, and, broadly, juggle as many professional and social obligations as are expected of her, and with little difficulty.
“She did not believe in the superwoman syndrome. She said it was a farce. She was always one of my friends that my parents called different. And she just pushed me.”
Johnson, who passed away of colorectal cancer on February 1, is one of the many women Clarke is looking to in gratitude in honor of Women’s History Month this March. In fact, when asked to name a woman who’s inspired her, Clarke doesn’t stop at just one.
“The names that keep coming to mind are Shirley Chisholm, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. And then there are names that ground me today who are still alive and well,” Clarke says. “Dr. Pam J. Williams, who was the first person of color in the role of Chief of Staff for Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Georgia. She’s now associate superintendent. I call her a very dear friend.”
Clarke also names Courtney Boyd, a teacher she brought with her to Atlanta Heights. “I feel like Courtney Boyd — her name needs to hang in the rafters,” Clarke says. “The Courtney Boyds of the world…[they] galvanize the people, get them to action, implement it with fidelity, and hold themselves accountable. I don’t know how they do all of those things, from Harriet Tubman, [who said], ‘Let’s move in silence and execute flawlessly, ladies and gentlemen, we’re seeking freedom.’ Or Shirley Chisholm trying to get to the table. ‘Oh, there’s not a seat — then I’ll bring a chair.’”
For Clarke, looking to the women who inspire her prompts her to reflect — on what it means to move within certain spaces as a Black woman; on who these women counted on or can count on for support; and on who their work inspires today. In considering these questions, Clarke returns to a figure in her life with whom she has a deeply personal connection: her maternal grandmother, Odessa Campbell.
Clarke’s grandmother held education in high esteem for her four grandchildren — and her emphasis on schooling was far from lost on a young Clarke during her childhood. “I was the nerd reading books under the bed, under the covers when I was told to go to bed, but it was because of Grandma,” she recalls.
Decades later, Atlanta Heights held its ribbon cutting on September 13, 2010 — Campbell’s birthday. “So, there’s a little bit of her in each of those women, I think,” Clarke says, “And I just consider myself grateful to still be able to learn from women in present day history as well as the lessons of the past.”
You do not have to have all the answers,
but you do have to be willing to ask all the questions.
And Clarke has continued to incorporate these lessons into her performance as a leader, including during her time at Atlanta Heights: In 2014, her work at the school garnered her the Ryan Award for transformational school leadership. Still, she stands firm in her belief that a leader is only as strong as their willingness to hear others.
“Remember that the folks who you’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder [with] or across from, they’re leaders in their own rights,” Clarke says of meeting with teachers, policymakers, and other educational leaders. “They’re bringing excellence to the table that you can learn from…[because] our experiences are different.”
Still, she acknowledges that there is a wide range of challenges facing schools today. The biggest one? “Resources, resources, resources,” Clarke says before pointing out that school leaders in urban areas are quick to name property taxes as the culprit when it comes to a lack of school funding. “I don’t have homes around my school,” Clarke says. “I have apartments and projects, [but] my schools in traditionally suburban communities, they’re doing very well.”
Barriers like these are par for the course in education — but Clarke encourages the incoming generation of Black women entering leadership roles to approach them with curiosity and determination.
“You do not have to have all the answers, but you do have to be willing to ask all the questions,” she says. “You have got to [ask], ‘If I don’t open the school, who will?’ Then, you’re going to have to knock on doors that you necessarily wouldn’t have had to knock on before.”
And, no matter the circumstances of a particular school, Clarke stands firm in her belief that problems can be solved only by acknowledging different — and sometimes opposing — voices.
To her, making space for the unique perspectives of each leader is the only path toward a genuinely solutions-oriented, problem-solving, and, above all, student-centered approach. “You’re going to have to do that, friend. And are you ready for that?”
Watch the Ryan Award profile video for Melissa Jones Clarke