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News > DP Education > Design Education Spotlight | Mike Jackson

Design Education Spotlight | Mike Jackson

Meet Mike Jackson, a South Philadelphia High School Teacher. Mr. Jackson works with the Design Education program to introduce more real-world experiences to his students. He is a proud Graphic Design Teacher in the Career and Technical Education Program since leaving the profession himself four years ago. At South Philadelphia High School, there are 4 CTE programs: Computer Technology, Sports Rehabilitation Aid, Graphic Design, and Culinary Arts. All courses are taught by former industry professionals. Mr. Jackson believes their goals are to teach high school students the skills learned from the trade. He often finds himself reminding the students that “CTE gets you ready for the day after graduation".

Q: How did you transition from working as a graphic designer to then teaching the skills as a teacher in the Philadelphia School District?
A: "I did not grow up in Philadelphia, but my extended family is from here. I have now spent more years here than in New Jersey, where I grew up. The city has been good to me. I saw teaching as a chance to help ensure that it would be good to others, too. As I got older, I began to see the invisible hand that helped guide me successfully through high school, college, and my career as a designer and freelance illustrator. I didn’t know it when I learned about CTE, but the realization of gratitude for the city and those who helped me get so far is what compelled me to get involved and apply. So far, so good! It is a lifestyle change for sure, but the students are the best coworkers I’ve ever had."

Q: What are some key skills and principles you emphasize to your students as part of your curriculum? What do you want each of your students to walk away with?
A: "If nothing else, make friends. Make friends, make friends. Additional mantras include, “Do it poorly if you have to, but do it” and “Perfect is the enemy of done.” I used to beat myself up for not being an award-winning, famous designer and illustrator. I thought I was a failure. But dang, I paid my bills and bought a house by doing that work. That’s Success! So I try to bring that mindset to the classroom—you don’t have to win awards to do well for yourself."

Q: You have now worked with DesignPhiladelphia to assist a student in securing an internship, hosted a workshop, and took a field trip to Smith and Diction’s office in the Bok Building. What parallels do you see in DP’s initiatives and your own as you advocate for your students?
A: "Shout out to Liza Niles and Michael Spain for their typography workshop, as well as Chara and Mike Smith of Smith and Diction for hosting us in their studio! And to our designers for taking advantage of those growth opportunities when they present themselves. Aside from their commitment to creating programming that our young designers will respond to, the best thing that our relationship with DesignPhiladelphia has provided is reinforcement and validation of vocabulary and lessons designers encounter in our classroom. From talking with Liza and Michael for even a few minutes, it is obvious that we all want the same things for the young people of our city—to give them access to the tools, skills, mindset, and support at a young age that they can leverage into a stimulating, satisfying, high-paying career. To help them contribute their voices, thoughts, and messages to their city as creative citizens."

Q: "You clearly prioritize incorporating real-world experiences into your student’s daily lessons. How do you do that and what motivates you to go the extra mile as a teacher?
A: "I don’t know if I am going any further than the other teachers I have worked with. I came into CTE with zero experience running a classroom and everything I do for the designers is modeled off something another teacher did or told me about. I have yet to meet a teacher here or in the district who has not had a minute for me when I have a question or an idea I want to pursue.

Regarding real-world experiences, that is a huge selling point for CTE in general. I often pull stories of successes and failures from my past life as a designer in offices around the city into class discussions. I get to share points of anxiety in my career and how I overcame them. I get to talk about my own budgeting and how I went about getting a raise. I tell about the time(s) I got laid off and why and what I did to get to my next job. I tell them about the best workplaces I’ve ever been in and point out examples of toxic environments to avoid. I get to show designers my own work that I’m proud of. Hopefully, it’s less preachy and more storytelling, and through the story, designers can see themselves in my shoes."

Q: "In a climate where we see CTE programs aren't as common across schools, why do you feel now more than ever they are crucial to every student’s educational success?"
A: "The value of CTE is that it puts the tools for high-paying, fulfilling careers in the hands of young people. It takes them from “I wonder” to “I can” to “I did.” I tell students that they did not sign a contract to enter graphic design when they graduate, but that their resume will be tight, that they will have a portfolio that shows their thinking and problem-solving, and that they will know how to manage an interview and a client relationship. Those are valuable skills for success in any walk of life, and they get to be creative while developing them.

Plus let’s not kid ourselves, this stuff is expensive. We work with the same gear that our designers see professionals using on our field trips—iMacs, the Adobe Creative Suite, Canon DSLR cameras, iPads. Cost-prohibitive barriers to entry abound. But here, students get access to get started. And because we CTE teachers work with our students for three years, we really get to know each other. Every graduated designer knows I’m here after school hours and that they are welcome back after graduation to continue working on their portfolios."

Interested in volunteering with DesginPhiladelphia's Design Education program?  Please reach out to Michael Spain (, Liza Niles (, or Carly Clifford ( for more information.

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