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Women in Education Leadership: 5 District Leaders Share Their Paths to Success

Women in Education Leadership: 5 District Leaders Share Their Paths to Success

How do you become a successful leader in education? The answer isn’t simple, but one way to gain insight is to learn from those who are showing up and doing that work every day.

During the inaugural Edmentum Women Leaders in Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri, we had the privilege of hearing from a panel of five women district leaders, each of whom walks a unique path to improving outcomes for the students in her care. The panelists volunteered their time and traveled to the University of Missouri in order to share their stories and provide advice and insights to other women leaders and those who aspire to lead.

This blog post is second in a series of posts sharing the wisdom and lessons learned during the Women Leaders in Education Conference. In the first post, we discussed 14 leadership insights from Dr. Margie Vandeven, the Missouri commissioner of education, who delivered the keynote address. In this post, we’ll dive into the panelists’ responses to these two questions:

  • What was your path to leadership?
  • What do you wish you would have known before you began your current position?

Meet the panelists

What was your path to leadership?

Nettie Collins-Hart 

Crystal Gale

Debbie Gonzalez

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

Sarah Marriott

What do you wish you would have known before you began your current position?

Nettie Collins-Hart:

I wish someone had explained to me the balance between education and politics and how the role of the superintendent or the leader is not to do the work—t’s to enable, empower, and encourage others to do the work.

My first superintendence in many ways was an excellent learning experience, although it didn’t end well. . . . I was an assistant superintendent in a very affluent, high-performing district, and my first superintendence was in a school district that was extremely the opposite. I will say now that I clearly was not ready for that position. I was ready to be a superintendent, but I was not ready for the challenges in a school district that had lots of academic needs, lots of financial woes, lots of politics, and lots of students who really needed someone who could lead that community and that school district—not just work hard and have children and families at your heart. . . . You can’t do it all; you can’t be that salvation if you are not ready.

Part of what I learned is there is an unhealthy alliance (but it’s very real) between education and politics—and particularly educational leadership and politics—and if you cannot survive one, then you can’t be successful at the other.

Crystal Gale:

I wish that someone would have told me that the roles for women and men were really different and how people perceive you in the role because of your gender is going to be different. To Dr. Hardin’s point, the words that you use because you are a woman are going to be different from the words you would use as a man. I know it sounds archaic to say that, but it is still very prevalent in the work, especially when you are a woman in leadership. You can make decisions that a man would make in the same position, but they would be much more well-received than when a woman makes them. . . . So, when I was told that I had a masculine leadership style, it was offensive to me because I thought that I was really about the work. I thought I was really passionate. You study and read about the difference between aggressive and assertive and what they look like, but at the end of the day, some people don’t want you to be either. But, just knowing and understanding that and being able to keep that in check and being able to navigate around that—I wish someone had taught me that.

Debbie Gonzalez:

One of the things that I remember—and I was told but you don’t know it until you are in it—is the number of different things that can come about in the course of a day. You could be talking to your principals about curriculum, and then all of a sudden, you’re talking about groundskeeping, and then the roofing has gone crazy. I think that’s what makes this job so enjoyable and so interesting—because it’s never boring, but you have to stay on top of it. It’s important to be able to react and put things in motion that will move the district forward. You also have to make time for yourself.

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley:

I have led sessions and coached people and advocated for balance. You have to have balance in your life, and my definition of balance was fifty-fifty work-life balance, right? And so, I always felt like a failure because I never achieved that. I was always helping people achieve this balance that I could never accomplish. It finally hit me that it’s not so much about it being a fifty-fifty because I spend way more time at work than I do at home. There are weeks when I have seven events, and they last late into the night.

Now, I talk about self-care, and that’s my balance. . . . So, when I can schedule a spa day or this evening, I have nothing on my schedule . . . so, I’m making dinner with my daughter, and we scheduled that, so that’s that balance for me. So, I wish someone had told me not to look at balance as being fifty-fifty because it’s almost impossible in a leadership role, particularly in urban education to achieve that.

Sarah Marriott:

There are two things that I think I wish I would have known two years ago. The first one is how isolating this position can be, and I don’t think you really realize that until you are in this position. So, I wish someone would have said that you need to find someone that you can have a conversation with, that you can really develop that trusting relationship with, and that is going to be your go-to person.

The second piece is how hard it is to come back and be the superintendent of the district that you grew up in and that you live in. The challenges I see with that is that there is a strong desire and expectation for you to fix things right now. You don’t have that latitude and that time that people who aren’t from your district have. They have a little bit of a cushion, a window to get to know the community, figure out your school district, but when you live there and you grew up there, you don’t have that. Sometimes, that’s a good thing because it makes you hustle a bit more; you pull up your boots and your big girl pants, and you get a move on it. But, that is really a strong takeaway that I am still wrapping my head around and trying to encourage patience with people and that we need to be a little bit more forgiving with whoever is in that role.

The other conference attendees and I learned so much from these impressive women, and I’m thankful that they were willing to be so open and honest in sharing their journeys.

Looking for more leadership tips? Be sure to check out these 14 leadership insights from Dr. Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education, and be on the lookout for another post in which our panelists will discuss how they prioritize initiatives and handle difficult situations.