By Dr. Shawn Joseph, Director of Metro Schools

If you are like me, you may be the first person in your family to graduate from high school or even from college. It is an achievement that I worked hard for and I know that so many others have as well. 

Last November, we witnessed some very contentious political races. We saw individuals with messages of hope, togetherness and common purpose. We saw others who perpetuated fear and divisiveness. Personally, I was inspired by the messages of resiliency, compassion and drive among folks like Stacey Abrams who ran for governor in the state of Georgia, and Andrew Gillum who fought a good fight for the governor’s seat in Florida. And Mike Espy who ran a dignified race for Mississippi’s U.S. Senate seat. 

While these individuals just happen to be African-American, that’s not what drove millions of Americans to support them – it was their spirit of inclusiveness, equity and excellence for all which propelled others to rally behind and support them. They each had stories of sacrifice, hard work and challenge that made them just like many of us who are striving every day to be better and do better for our families and communities. 

What many of us know, from living day to day, is that life can be tough. There are going to be people who will try to bring you down, take your name or take your possessions, but we must look upward and lean on our faith, our families, and friends to find the strength to push forward. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, I think about those black men and women who participated in the sit-in’s in Nashville in 1960. There were threats of violence, constant humiliation, and the uncertainty about whether they could support their loved ones. They grappled with anguishing doubts born of the Jim Crow culture which were a daily reminder of the inequities in this country. The temptation to live in fear and accept second-class status was, in many cases, a harsh reality. And yet, those who came before us nearly 60 years ago, understood that they had a responsibility to stand up and fight for justice. They understood that they were better than their present-day circumstances. 

While we can look around and see that much has changed over the years, we cannot blindly ignore that much has not. We have a responsibility to finish what those brave men and women started in changing the landscape of our nation into something brighter. They realized that to whom much is given, much is required, and we must all recognize our responsibility to help things go right for others – especially for our children. 

In Nashville, we have many organizations and individuals who are stepping up in amazing ways to help our school district progress. We know, from research, that when schools have family and community support, student achievement goes up. We also have tremendous leadership in our principals, teachers and staff who come to work every day because they not only love what they do, but they also believe deeply that their impact can be a turning point in the lives of many children.

Across our school district, I meet educators who are more than just teachers for students – they are mentors, caregivers, role models and, at times, compassionate disciplinarians. They are steadily doing the exceptional work which has helped this school district grow faster than the state in literacy achievement, improve ACT scores, and increase student participation in industry certification exams and advanced coursework. They have worked hard to provide a safe and engaging space that makes our children want to come to school and learn. Their perseverance and resilience around educating children inspires me and makes me even more committed to doing the best job I can in leading them every day.  

The great Booker T. Washington once said, “if you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else,” because “those people who are happiest are those who do the most for others.” This is one of the reasons I continue to fight for equity and excellence across all of our schools; to fight for our teachers and staff to receive the pay that they so rightly deserve; to fight for our families to receive the services they need so they can better support and advocate for their children; and to fight for all of our more than 85,000 students so that they can soar beyond their imaginations. 

It’s clear that we all have limited time on this earth. We can spend our time contributing to the problems or helping to solve them. I choose to do the latter. There is not a minute to waste. When we have an opportunity to do something, take that opportunity to heart – and, in the words of Nike: Just do it. And in doing so, know that decisions made will not always be popular and ideas shared will not always be unanimous; but when you lead with the truest intention of doing the right things for the right reasons – the rest will take care of itself.