Brian Stockton views coming home after 25 years as a chance to make a difference in his hometown of Memphis.
A 1990 graduate of Central High School, Stockton became chief of staff for Superintendent Dorsey Hopson in July after serving as a consultant to Shelby County Schools since February.
Among his projects so far: organizing a supplies depot for teachers at high-need schools, connecting Whitehaven-area schools in a new Empowerment Zone, and using money saved from reorganized bus routes to start addressing a backlog of building maintenance needs.
Almost every Wednesday, Stockton shares breakfast with members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to cultivate the district’s relationship with its local funding body. He also recruited former Tennessee Teacher of the Year Karen Vogelsang as a staff member to inject a teacher’s voice in district policy decisions.
Stockton, 44, recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about his role. Here are the highlights.
What does a chief of staff do, and how does that fit into the mission of Shelby County Schools?
I’m more staff than chief. I feel like I’m a regular worker in the district. On paper, I supervise other chiefs and their departments. But I see my role as working on the day-to-day issues, kind of reactionary. My primary role is to provide cushion for the superintendent to think, provide vision, and plan the next moves for the district. For any good leader, they can’t lead an organization when they’re solving the day-to-day issues. I see my role as being a buffer so he can provide that leadership.
What was your most recent job? And what prompted you to begin working in the public education sector?
I was a leadership analyst at Serco, a large company near (Washington) D.C. that mostly does government contracts. The CEO wanted someone to stem attrition and boost morale while developing leaders within the organization. When I first got hired, I was sent to Kansas City to fight off a union. I just leaned in and started listening for three days. The CEO did a followup visit a few weeks later and was surprised at how things had changed for the better. Within a year, we were able to stem attrition by 12 percent, which is huge.
What got me in education was really the culture piece. This time last year, I had a conversation with Superintendent Hopson about low morale in the district. He said “I need help. We need your kind of skills here.” I came home twice a year and saw the suffering and poverty here in Memphis. … I wanted to see if (my cultural and leadership skills) could work here to raise morale of some our most important professionals: our educators.
What are your main principles when tackling this kind of work?
Whenever my team members are in a situation where they don’t know what to do, they can go back to our core principles to inform their decisions. Some of our principles are to train minds and inspire hearts and to make bad students good and good students superior.
I want us to have a new branding as a district where people want to send their kids. I want each staff member to feel like they have a purpose. Morale starts at the top. We as a leadership team cannot send out ambiguous directives. When we do that, people are confused. And when people are confused, they don’t have clear direction and they are frustrated. And if I’m able to provide that kind of cushion for the superintendent, he can provide that clear vision.
A lot has happened since you graduated in 1990 — the merger, the de-merger, Race to the Top, the Innovation Zone, the Achievement School District, to name a few things. What are the changes that strike you the most now that you’ve returned to Memphis schools?
I haven’t seen much of a difference in Memphis (in general). And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come. I want to make a difference. Sometimes when I got off the jetway in D.C. after visiting Memphis, I felt like I was going 20 years into the future.
But in education, I’ve seen a lot of differences. (State testing) seems to be one of the main reasons for low morale among teachers and principals in the district. We’ve got to have a metric in place to notice disparities so we can change our tactics. But there’s got to be a balance.
And the involvement of philanthropic organizations. I didn’t know about outside organizations providing funding for education. Maybe it was going on when I was here, but I didn’t know about it.
What are some of the greatest equity issues facing students in Shelby County Schools?
Poverty, single-parent homes, unemployment that our parents are facing, which takes you back to poverty. … As a district, we have to find a way to be on one agenda, and that agenda has to be the children and changing the trajectory of Memphis out of poverty and making it a place of highly educated individuals. I was at Hamilton High School recently and there were children coming in who hadn’t been registered yet for the school year. And their parents looked like they just came from a really hard place.
At the end of the day, I look at the (central office) as the Pentagon, and I look at our schools as military installations. Our job is to provide those military installations with all the resources they need to help these children. I want to do everything in my power to make sure there’s equity in our schools and that they get the resources they need. I don’t care if it’s a Smart Board or a book or a security officer or a social worker.