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7 Questions with Jeff McMaster

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Jeff McMaster

Name: Jeff McMaster

Current title: Headmaster

Current organisation: Brazos Christian School

I have been married since 1988 to my beautiful wife, Nora, and we have two children and one grandchild. We met on a Christian school senior trip to Europe, and then attended the same college, Liberty University, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in Christian Thought. I received my Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling from Mission Seminary, and my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Andrews University.
My experiences include marriage and family counseling in both private and church practice, instructor of counseling in higher education, and - for the last 30 years - serving as a Christian school teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and headmaster, leading Christian schools through meaningful change and growth. I have served in five different Christian schools during that time, with over 20 years at a senior management/leadership level, and I currently serve as the headmaster of Brazos Christian School in Bryan, Texas.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

What I have found most challenging is the constant struggle against misperceptions formed by incomplete or incorrect information. Proverbs 18:13 warns us that to "answer a matter before hearing it is considered folly and shame," but so often someone will react to something without having first gathered the full picture or the whole story. Regardless of whether it comes from a parent, an employee, or the community, it seems that often the tendency is for people to hear information that is incomplete or without context, form a false conclusion, and react. It requires constant diligence to stay ahead of this challenge with communication, and careful wisdom and discernment to combat it.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I am not a morning person, so it's a struggle for me to get up early, but I have learned that I must discipline myself to do so. I also am someone who does better with a regular routine that I can follow. Therefore my day typically starts at about 5:00 a.m., so that I can take some time for exercise, breakfast, and personal Bible study time. I then usually arrive at work about 30 minutes before my work day begins so that I can spend some time reading books on leadership, education, and/or spiritual growth. I tend to structure not only my regular schedule of meetings throughout the week, but also times for walking around campus to observe and to interact with employees and students. When the workday is over, I leave my work at school so that I can focus on my family. I have a routine of chores that I do to help my wife care for our home, and enjoy time with my wife playing dominos, talking, and watching shows. I am usually in bed at about 11:00.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

The current pandemic has magnified many normal leadership challenges, largely because it has magnified the intensity of emotions surrounding it. Out of this, I have been reminded of two things: the need and importance of clear and transparent communication, and the need to balance the felt needs of people with the reality of objective data. This has been especially evident in responses to COVID anxieties and challenges, when I must work to make decisions based on data and not emotion, but must also make sure that people's anxieties and concerns are heard and validated.

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I am a fairly avid reader, and so I am usually reading 3 or 4 books at a time; often that includes a book for personal/spiritual growth, one for professional growth as an educator, one on leadership, and one good fiction novel for entertainment. I think I've learned valuable lessons about leadership from a lot of books, so the answer to this question is derived from thinking about the books that I most often reference in a conversation or speaking opportunities. Carol Dweck's "Mindset" is one of those, because I have so often referenced it with teachers when we discussed the importance of teachers in the learning process. I found it to be valuable enough in shaping a teacher's perspective toward students in the classroom that I required it as a summer reading assignment for all employees a couple of years ago.

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

People need to be where they fit (as Jim Collins has said, get the right people on the bus, then get them into the right seat), and I believe that generally comes from matching their passion and their abilities with the right opportunity, resulting in personal fulfillment. Therefore I look for people who have a passion for shaping young people, who have the ability to connect and communicate, and who have competence in their particular subject area or field, then help them be in that place as an employee. I support, encourage, and affirm without micromanaging, so that I can give them the freedom to thrive. The reality, though, is good leaders often grow beyond the role that they are in and need to move to a place of greater leadership, so it may be that I won't be able to keep them because I am actually equipping them to step into leadership someplace else.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

What is most important is to realize that people are more important than tasks. Proverbs 14:4 says that "where the oxen are, the trough is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox." Applied to the education sector, this means that it doesn't matter how structured and excellent the curriculum and the facilities are, it is the teachers and the students that make school worthwhile. I tend to be a task oriented person, and this was a lesson that I had to learn early in my leadership when I would get frustrated because the needs of people would interfere with my need to accomplish a task. The truth, it's about people, so leaders have to value and validate people. I once heard Josh McDowell say in a message about reaching teenagers that "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." To develop a culture of wellbeing, the people who work for and with me, and who make up the population of my school, must know that I personally care about each one.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

The first time I needed to let a teacher go from her position before the school year had even ended, I was struggling with the courage to actually go through with it. My dad reminded me that people need to be in a place where they fit so that they can thrive and find fulfillment. If this was not what that person should be doing and I kept them there, I would be keeping them from being in the place where they could truly find fulfillment. I made the hard call, and communicated this truth in that conversation. Six months later she came back to thank me for letting her go, pushing her out of the "easy choice for her life" that she had been in, that was what others were expecting from her, and had stepped into the career and calling that she knew was where she really needed to be. Again, it's about people, and in this case, it meant that I was doing something hard that was better for her in the long run.