Former Des Moines Public Schools student Dau Jok helms district's journey of social and emotional learning
This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Dau Jok has never forgotten his roots.
Not only does he remember the childhood experiences that shaped him, he honors them in his current role as the social and emotional learning coordinator for Des Moines Public Schools.
A graduate of Roosevelt High School who emigrated to the United States with his family from what is now South Sudan when he was 11, Jok remembers being treated differently because of the color of his skin and the way he spoke. He remembers being skipped in class during reading groups because he couldn't read or speak English well enough.
"Normally you might say that’s the right thing to do — it was good intentions, I don’t want to be embarrassed — but it deprived me of dignity, and I wasn’t allowed to even try," he said.
Jok doesn't want other students to share those frustrations. He wants them to experience the great teachers he had that changed his life and saw the potential in him.
Now an employee of the same school system he grew up in, he has been working with a task force of 50 district employees that will help him implement social and emotional learning into every aspect of DMPS.
For some, that responsibility may be daunting. To Jok, one of the Des Moines Register's People to Watch in 2021, leading is like stepping into a well-worn pair of shoes.
From a young age, Jok has been motivated to change the world around him for the better. As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, he started a nonprofit named after his late father, the Dut Jok Youth Foundation. The organization provides sports equipment and camps as well as leadership workshops for youth in the United States, Uganda and South Sudan.
While at Penn, Jok received a $10,000 Kathryn. W. Davis Projects for Peace grant that helped him start his nonprofit. He was captain of the Quakers basketball team and a recipient of the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup, a prestigious honor that recognizes an athlete’s contributions on the court, in the classroom and in the community.
Jok was first exposed to the idea of emotional intelligence while working on his master's degree in global leadership at the University of London, he said.
He was able to integrate his education into his career when he joined the military in 2015. He still serves as an engineer company commander for his unit at Fort Des Moines.
'I think we can do more for young people'
In his new position with DMPS — he was hired in October — Jok is committed to bringing others along with him on a journey of self-improvement and examination.
"I love human beings. I love humanity — although we’re flawed, there’s something about humanity and the human spirit, " he said. "... I think we can do more for young people, and for me, that’s great motivation right there."
In the first phase of the district's plan, Jok has been taking a top-down approach to systematically implementing social and emotional learning into the district's operations. He describes social and emotional learning as a "lever for equity" that will help make a safe working and learning environment throughout the school system by creating a more emotionally intelligent environment and building a culture of trust.
"All this work is us recognizing the importance of emotions and using emotions as a lever for education," he said.
He has started by working with district staff to improve their social and emotional learning competencies and emotional intelligence. He'll then move on to building staff and then teachers and classrooms. His ultimate goal is for students to feel that they belong and are challenged and for teachers to feel supported.
"I would like to see us as a district become a model of educational equity and excellence in leadership ... leveraging the talent that students bring to the table, (that) our staff brings to the table, to create a more thriving learning environment for our students that come from all corners of the world," he said.
DMPS students come from over 100 nations and speak 200 languages and dialects, the district says.
Jok's supervisor and director of student services for DMPS, Laura Fefchak, said the district was looking for an insightful person to fill the role, and they found that in Jok.
"Social and emotional learning is a different kind of construct in that it is really about engaging people in this lifelong process of developing these competencies in themselves as adults first and foremost so the adults in the system can create the conditions that would allow children to feel safe enough to also develop these competencies," she said.
When students leave the district, Fefchak said, she wants them to have academic knowledge and practical skills and abilities, but also to understand themselves, what is important to them and how they will look to make a positive change in the world.
"I think he has lots to share with us, and I also would say he comes with a tremendous amount of humility that he also knows he has so much to learn," she said. "It just also makes me feel very confident when I say whatever Dau sets out to accomplish, I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen."
Right now, Jok has set his eyes on dismantling any barriers to student success through implementing social and emotional learning in all facets of the district.
"Implementation means that barriers like race, class, sex, gender, religion are not a barrier to excellence in education," he said.
Jok's work is building 'a culture of care'
Mary Grinstead, the district's director of assessment data and evaluation, has been working with Jok on setting up a comprehensive program with a curriculum for students and adults and measurements of outcomes, such as by surveying students and staff about their social and emotional learning.
She said the district began putting a spotlight on social and emotional learning back in 2018, when the school board held a listening session with the community about the outcomes parents and staff members wanted for students. The three main areas of focus included early literacy, algebra readiness and social and emotional learning.
The desire to work on social and emotional learning was put into board policy in 2019, she said. But after attempting to incorporate responsibilities for implementation into the duties of existing employees, the district decided to hire one person to champion the effort.
After months of searching, the district found Jok.
"Every day I get to talk to Dau is a good day," Grinstead said.
In just a few short months, Grinstead said Jok is already building a "culture of care" and encouraging employees to have a positive relationship with themselves in order to have a positive relationship with others, including students and staff.
"It’s foundational work for setting students up for success right now and after graduation, and it’s foundational work for setting our staff up for success in their teaching and learning roles," she said. "Our staff deal with constant change in an increasingly political landscape, and in order to survive they need this coaching and skill-building to take care of themselves, and honestly our administrators need it just as much."
Jok acknowledged he has a long road ahead of him — he knows social and emotional learning doesn't happen overnight. If he's successful, though, he hopes to create a system capable of fighting any barriers to learning, whether it's a classroom disruption or systemic racism.
"I’m excited to do this because it’s something I believe in," he said, "and there are too many talented people not to create those spaces where everyone can reach their potential and kids can really thrive."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Dau Jok
LIVES: West Des Moines
EDUCATION: Bachelor of arts in philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, 2014; master's in global leadership, University of London, 2015.
CAREER: Social and emotional learning coordinator, Des Moines Public Schools. Also founder, Dut Jok Youth Foundation; Army first lieutenant reservist engineer company commander; aide-de-camp to a one-star general, 2019-2020; Out-of-School Time enrichment coach, State Public Policy Group, 2017-2020; coordinator, Oak Ridge Neighborhood Summer Youth Employment Program, 2017.
FAMILY: Wife, Emmanuela Noi; siblings Peter and Alek Jok; mother, Amelia Ring.
Sarah LeBlanc covers the western suburbs for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or email@example.com.