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Women in Education Leadership: 5 District Leaders Share How They Handle Career Challenges and Prioritizing Their Work

Women in Education Leadership: 5 District Leaders Share How They Handle Career Challenges and Prioritizing Their Work

Serving in a leadership role in education allows educators to expand their sphere of impact from a single classroom to an entire school, district, or even state. The ability to affect the learning outcomes of a large number of students can be incredibly rewarding, but education leaders also face a variety of challenges.

In the previous post in the Women in Education Leadership blog series, we shared insights from the five women district leaders who participated in the panel discussion in the inaugural Edmentum Women Leaders in Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri. That post focused on what each panelists’ path to leadership was and what they wish they would have known before beginning their leadership positions. In this final post in the series, we are continuing that discussion and sharing the panelists’ responses to these two questions:

  • How do you handle a situation when an individual or a group of people doesn’t want you to succeed or is actively trying to derail you?
  • What priorities drive the work that you do each day?

Meet the panelists

How do you handle a situation when an individual or a group of people doesn’t want you to succeed or is actively trying to derail you?

Nettie Collins-Hart:

If you aspire to be a superintendent, one of the things you want to remember is you have multiple bosses. It’s one of the more unique aspects—depending on the district, you could have 5, 7, or even 12 bosses, and different people see things differently. The extent to which you can corral a majority of those bosses may mean the difference between whether you can or cannot lead that district and do what you are supposed to do for children.

In my first superintendence, in my second year, I had what was called a contract buyout. That’s a nice way of saying, basically, you got fired because you were too confident to resign. Many years later, I’m the national superintendent of the year. So, my point is resiliency. I think if you aspire to be a superintendent or any other higher-level leadership, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. There are going to be people who try to bring you down, and for no other reason than, some of them are jerks—but some of them really have issue with you and what you do. It’s not always enough to work hard, be dedicated to children, be a good person, and be competent. Sometimes, it’s just not the right fit. There are going to be people that their agenda is to bring you down. If they are successful—and we hope they won’t be—you don’t have to stay down.

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley:

During a previous role in Dr. Hardin-Bartley’s career, a group of people circulated a letter questioning her competence in an attempt to have her placed on administrative leave.

It was a hurtful way to address issues that we needed to address. But, fortunately, I had enough allies in the community and in the district that supported me. So, what I did was—the next day, I brought in muffins and doughnuts because I didn’t know what else to do, but I had to go to work; I couldn’t stay in the fetal position and cry. But, after that, I reflected on every word that was written in that letter, and as painful as it was, I looked in the mirror—and there were some interpersonal things that I could have handled differently.

I’m much wiser now and much more savvy with navigating working with people because of my experiences. When there is a negative [social media] post about the district, or about me, or anything that is related to my leadership, or my impact, I look at what people are saying, even if it hurts, because I firmly believe that we can learn something from all feedback. I don’t always agree with it—some people, I think are just jerks, and they are being mean and cruel, but even when they are being jerks, I look at it and say, “Is there something I can learn from that?” And I try to get that lesson and move forward, and I don’t look back.

Sarah Marriott:

I had someone very intentionally try to derail my career path, and that was very hurtful. You have to surround yourself with people that know and understand you and see your intentions, and I think as long as you clearly communicate and you are very rooted in that and very grounded in the fact that the decisions I make, I’m firm and confident that I’m doing this for the right reason. And whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I finally wrapped my head around that it’s going to go how it’s going to go, and I needed to be OK with that.

In that moment, it was very hurtful. You take it extremely personally, you start second-guessing everything and all of your decisions, and you start to doubt whether this is what you were truly meant to be doing. You just have to step back once in a while and reflect: “Yeah, I’m in this for the right reasons,” and as long as you have that, then you can do it.

What priorities drive the work that you do each day?

Crystal Gale:

The question I always ask myself is: “How does this relate back to student achievement? How do I measure this against what is important in order for us to get student outcomes.” Every day, there are things that are going to come up, fires that you are going to have to put out, tough decision[s] that you are going to have to make that may be unpopular. It’s really hard to keep it really clean; it’s really hard to lean on your processes because everything becomes really messy and really emotional when it involves people. But, the only question I come back to—and what centers me in the work, and what centers me in prioritizing my day, and my week, and my month—is: “How does this relate back to student achievement?” At the end of the day, that is why we do the work that we do. If I can’t connect it to a student outcome or an immediate directive from my superintendent, then I’ll try to find time to get it done, but it doesn’t become one of the top things that I have to accomplish.

Debbie Gonzalez:

I always like to remember this quote: “Keep the main thing the main thing,” And I think the main thing in our work is the kids. And so, keeping the main thing what’s best for kids helps us to prioritize. I know that’s easier said than done, but when you reflect and determine what you’re going to do, what’s best for kids should be the top driver.

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley:

We put out a vision with input from our community, including teachers, parents, students, and business leaders, and our first priority is creating a modern learning experience. My daughter’s graduating class is 2030, and so, the careers that she and her classmates will explore simply don’t exist. So, we have to innovate and think about how we go about school differently. Our second priority is well-being and joy. We are deliberate and intentional about that. If children are not well, if adults are not well, we can’t expect them to learn at high levels, so we focus extensively on the well-being of our students, our staff, our communities, and our families. Our third priority is excellent staff; we can’t do the work without people. We have to have great people—from the bus driver to the superintendent to the classroom teacher to the support person—every person who works in the system has to be of high quality. Our fourth strategic priority is “all hands.” We can’t do the work alone—and so, really looking at our community partnerships in a meaningful way. Our fifth priority is resources. How do we find the financial resources that we need and effectively leverage our existing resources so that we can successfully fund and achieve that vision of learning reimagined? We’re very deliberate about those five, and everything we do centers around those five, and it is becoming a part of the water in U City [University City, Missouri] where you can ask students, you can ask parents, “What is our focus?” They may not be able to articulate them the way that I did, but they’ll certainly talk about elements of what we’re focused on, and the most important thing is that you should see evidence of those things in the classroom.

Sarah Marriott:

Rural education is something that I’ve always been passionate about. I think it is often forgotten and that discussion is often left out in Jefferson City. It’s important that our students know every single day that they can be whatever they want, whoever they want to be, and because they come from a small town, that doesn’t dictate what their capabilities are and what they can achieve. And I hope that I can model that for them every day. And so, my focus and priority is always to make sure that we are creating those opportunities for kids, and I truly believe that we have the potential to be the very best school district in the state. I firmly believe that, and whether we get there when I’m in my leadership role or not, that’s my hope and intention for the district.

Looking for more leadership insights? Don’t miss the 14 leadership insights from Dr. Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education.