Help on Both Sides of the Desk

Finding the solution to Baltimore County’s schools within the schoolhouse

With about 112,000 students, Baltimore County Public Schools decided in 2013 that it needed to tackle hard realities facing its students. They needed more equitable distribution of resources, technology, teachers, and facilities. In short, they needed more equitable access to opportunity. That requires a force of supportive educators, which in turn requires equally supportive administration.

This is where Dr. John Mayo comes in. As chief human resources officer, Mayo makes sure that his students have the right teachers, and he ensures that those teachers can perform to the best of their abilities. He thinks of himself as someone who’s trying to help others get where they want to be. He keeps a poem from his elementary days, Langston Hughes’s “Dreams,” in his mind often. The piece urges readers to “hold fast to your dreams.”

It’s an appropriate poem for someone in education, but the message also touches the story of Mayo’s career in an unexpected way. His dream from the age of five was to be a cardiac surgeon. Having grown up watching his father struggle with heart problems, he was determined to help, and he followed that dream all the way through an undergraduate degree in biology. However, while he was studying for the MCAT, Mayo started substitute teaching at his old school, and his plans—and his dream—changed.

“I fell in love with teaching while I was there, and I never really looked back,” he says. “I fell in love with working with kids, even mentoring kids who are now medical doctors. I was able to give them some real-life perspective in those units rather than simply moving on to the next chapter—discussing what it was like in the field.”

He followed that new passion and eventually became a science teacher, department chair, assistant principal, and, later, principal. After his first year of full-time teaching, Mayo was offered the opportunity to lead the science department as they entered the process of state accreditation. It was an exciting opportunity for a young teacher, but it also put him in the rare position of leading the very teachers who had mentored him in science in the first place.

“We were at 90 percent of our kids passing state tests, but that meant there were 10 percent who were still struggling. People said ‘We’re already doing great things.’ I needed to explain to them why we needed to do more.”

“I told them upfront: I’m not an expert,” Mayo recalls. “I told them, ‘You all believed in me when I was a student, and now we need to work together for other students in the same situation.’”

At the end of that year, the science department was the first department in the school to be accredited, and Mayo discovered after leading this team that his calling was not just to help students, but also to help adults.

Today, Mayo handles recruitment, union negotiations, evaluations, employee dispute resolutions, benefits, leaves, retirements, and risk management for Baltimore County Public Schools. Before he came into his role as chief human resources officer in 2014, the hiring for a school year had sometimes continued late into the summer. Today, he keeps staffing at the forefront. In fact, one of his first actions was to implement a new applicant tracking system. This kind of improvement, though a huge undertaking, makes sure that the county’s students have the best teachers possible.

“Someone’s not going to wait until June, July, or August,” Mayo explains. “They’ll go somewhere else.”

Mayo has focused on streamlining this process in his new role. Just last school year, he brought more than seven hundred teachers into his school system. Today he recruits year-round, staying in contact with local colleges and even going as far as Puerto Rico to find Spanish-speaking teachers for his students. Puerto Rico might not seem like the first place to look for teachers for Baltimore schools, but educating students to have international communications skills is a major part of the school system’s strategic plan, Blueprint 2.0.

As someone who knows from experience that the solutions to a school’s biggest issues can come from within the school itself, Mayo has even worked to establish a pipeline within the student body for high schoolers who have the potential to be great teachers. He sees the potential in people like himself whose career plans might have brought them to teaching indirectly.

“I’m a firm believer in working with them,” he insists. “Maybe education was their plan B, so now we can work to get that person where they need to be.”

Although his school system has made major progress, Mayo is unlikely to rest on his laurels. Even when he led a high-performing school, he still urged his staff to do better.

“We still had a long way to go,” he says. “We were at 90 percent of our kids passing state tests, but that meant there were 10 percent who were still struggling. People said, ‘We’re already doing great things. Why are you trying to change things?’ I explained to them that we needed to do more.”