‘Stubborn Courage’ in Leading

Type: Article
Topics: Equity, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

August 01, 2021

Profile: JORIS M. RAY

Joris RayOn a drive back to Shelby County’s central office in Memphis, Tenn., at the end of a day visiting schools, superintendent Joris Ray saw some African-American boys selling water along the road to raise money.

The situation moved Ray to act. “It bothered him so much he copied his deputy superintendents and his chiefs to find out the numbers of African-American males who graduated, who were suspended, who were in AP and who were athletes,” recalls Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support, who was driving with Ray at the time. “He said, ‘we’ve got to offer them more.’”

One major response was the school district’s African-American Male Empowerment Initiative to transform the experience of Black male students through community mentors and tutors, rigorous academic courses, more intensive restorative justice practices and the recruitment of African-American male teachers for elementary schools.

Equity — and particularly the dismantling of systemic racism — is not an abstract goal for Ray, who has spent the entirety of his education career in Memphis, his hometown.

“2020 gave us 20/20 vision and a moment of clarity,” he says. “We need to start treating the root cause. …The pandemic unveiled historic inequities. With my knowing the community, it’s time to accelerate the timeline for change. There’s a sense of urgency for students.”

He adds, “The work of equity is looking at education policies, early literacy, interactions between adults and students. … We can’t leave any child behind.”

Ray’s advocacy for the 110,500-student system, which he’s led since 2019, is unequivocal. He defied Tennessee’s governor to keep the schools closed during the pandemic. Similarly, he refused to allow high school football to take place during COVID-19, despite community backlash.

“He puts kids first, he puts teachers first,” says Terry Grier, former superintendent in Houston and other districts, whom Ray considers his mentor. “He was not going to be bullied by the governor if it was not in the best interests of his students and staff. … He has stubborn courage.”

Nor is it posturing that Ray puts himself at the bottom of the district’s organizational chart. Inspired by his father, who was in charge of the church Sunday school, Ray says he believes “I’m the least among you. There’s no job too small. Get it done, get it right. As a leader, I want to be quick to listen and be slow to speak.”

As the youngest of seven who earned his doctorate at the University of Memphis, Ray originally thought he’d pursue a legal career but with two sisters already working in the school system when he graduated, an education career prevailed. “I have teachers all around me,” he says, noting that his wife is also a teacher.

Ray’s earliest experiences loom large on his present. He’s never forgotten an 8th grader who needed to repeat the grade. “I guided him to have faith in himself and stayed in touch with him through high school,” he says.

The student, a successful professional who now manages his own music band, came to a school board meeting to share how Ray had changed his life almost 25 years earlier.

“This is my heart work,” the superintendent says. “This is where I want to be. Everything is personal. It affects the entire community. It affects my family. As a lifelong Memphian, my love for this city is the driver for what I do. I’m so honored to be the superintendent where I was a student. There’s no place like home.”



CURRENTLY: superintendent, Shelby County School District, Memphis, Tenn.

chief of academic operations and school support, Shelby County School District


My parents did not complete a formal education, but they taught me about treating people right.

The day I was named superintendent. It was an emotional moment. This journey is personal for me as I lead the very district where I was once a student and teacher.

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by James M. Kouzes and Barry A. Posner; and Motivating and Inspiring Teachers: The Educational Leader’s Guide for Building Staff Morale by Todd Whitaker, Beth Whitaker and Dale Lumpa

I’m passionate about AASA’s mission to advocate for equitable access by offering the highest quality public education. I became a member of AASA because I believe we are truly stronger together.

I’m passionate about AASA’s mission to advocate for equitable access by offering the highest quality public education. I became a member of AASA because I value the support provided to school leaders and believe we are truly stronger together.

Joris M. Ray

Superintendent, Memphis-Shelby County School District (Tenn.)

Joris Ray