Superintendent turnover has hit districts nationwide, leaving school boards scrambling to find permanent replacements. Research from the ILO Group found that since 2020, 49 percent of the country’s 500 biggest school districts have experienced a leadership change.
If districts are lucky, their vacancies are filled by experienced superintendents or up-and-comers jumping into a new administrative role. But thousands more are still waiting for the right fit – and that candidate pool is quickly drying up as Baby Boomers head into retirement.
For far too long, women and educators of color have been overlooked to serve as superintendents of schools. Despite the changing student and community demographics of many districts – and the efforts to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and diversify staff – seventy percent of newly hired superintendents are still men.
For public schools to remain sustainable and address the needs of diverse students in a post-COVID era, districts must recognize the value of female leaders’ lived experiences. There are thousands of talented, skilled, and visionary female educators who would thrive in lead administrative roles. Here are five necessary steps to remove obstacles and shatter the antiquated, systemic glass ceiling for women seeking leadership positions:
Focus on talent and potential as much as credentials. A majority of districts require superintendents to have a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. However, even if a female educator earns an advanced degree, she’s often passed over for a man who may be less qualified but has the right connections and unwavering confidence.
There are so many innate talents and traits women bring to leadership roles. We’re born multitaskers and organizers. We possess the care and empathy to understand others, and the communication skills to build meaningful relationships. When these “soft skills” are valued and nurtured by administrators throughout an educator’s career – and fused together with years of experience in the classroom – it’s a powerful combination that board members can no longer overlook in the hiring process.
Don’t just climb the ladder to success, drop the ladder down for women on the way up. Each time a superintendent rises through the ranks or looks toward retirement, we have a responsibility to uplift the next generation of diverse female leaders.
As women, we can’t just invite an aspiring administrator to the table – we must pull out the chair and remind her she earned that seat. As men, you can be allies in the work toward greater equality by having the courage to explore your implicit bias and use your position and privilege to empower and amplify women’s voices.
Catch promising educators earlier in their careers. The sooner we build the teacher-to-superintendent pipeline, the better, especially as fewer students are earning teaching degrees. According to NORC at the University of Chicago, only 18 percent of Americans would encourage a young person to become a teacher.
When districts tap into aspiring female educators even before they enter the classroom, we can identify and support those interested in a future leadership role, direct them to professional development opportunities, and provide guidance, as they work toward their goals. Districts should not have to go searching for their next principal or administrator when they can build leaders within their own school walls.
Build authentic relationships. If we want to change the narrative of female leadership, it’s our obligation to redefine mentorship as a partnership. You may be the mentor offering guidance, but your mentee is the person who will be carrying your mission forward.
A true mentoring bond allows us to share our raw, authentic stories – ones in which the lessons from our failures are as empowering as those from our successes. We should listen as much as we talk and admit when we don’t know the answer. And we should continue that mentorship even when a new superintendent finally steps into their role, coaching them through overwhelming demands and tough decisions.
Researchers found that when mentors empower new superintendents with first-year survival skills, administrators can better prioritize their goals, build deeper conversations with board members and their community, manage their time more effectively, and better advocate for their students.
Be part of a nationwide network of leaders. Female administrations still face difficulties breaking into the “boys’ club.” The good news is most of today’s superintendents want to be a part of the women’s movement happening in K-12 by getting behind the next generation of leaders and supporting women currently in leadership roles.
For superintendents, networking isn’t just a casual chat over drinks; it’s a lifetime conversation that shifts as new challenges emerge. Superintendents from diverse districts need to step into the same space with their fellow leaders and aspiring administrators to offer ongoing support, advice, and, of course, their congratulations on a job well done. Just as important, districts need to be willing to give their leaders the autonomy to learn from each other.
Building a more diverse leadership team doesn’t just offer school districts new perspectives and solutions, it directly benefits the students we serve. Representation matters to both those children who see themselves in their leaders and those who can learn from others with different lived experiences. It’s time districts widen the talent pool by spotting the top talent among their female teachers and administrators and provide them the resources they need to reach the next level of their careers.
About the authors
Dr. Aurelia L. Henriquez is currently the Superintendent of Port Chester Schools at Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District, and a member of the Institute for Education Innovation, a national school superintendent think tank driving change in education.
Tiffany Law is the Director of Partner Relations at the Institute for Education Innovation, a national school superintendent think tank driving change in education.