I never expected to spend my career in public education, much less lead one of the nation’s largest school systems. And I never thought I’d be among only a handful of women to hold the top job.
After graduating from Florida A&M University with my mathematics degree, my plan was simple: pursue a career in actuarial science. The only thing standing in my way was the multi-part professional licensure exam, which was heavy on mathematics content. I decided that teaching mathematics would be the best way to stay on top of it. Back in my hometown of Prince George’s County, Maryland, I applied for a teaching job at my old high school. My former high school principal offered me the job. I expected to stay only as long as it would take to complete the exams.
Life had other plans for me. My students hooked me after my first week of teaching.
Though I did not realize it at the time, starting my career at a high school was great preparation for education leadership and administration. Your stakeholders are not just parents, but young adults who can articulate their satisfaction — and dissatisfaction — with your decisions. There are more employees, more curricular content, more robust extracurriculars and more opportunities to lead.
No one ever told me to leave the classroom. However, while working as a mathematics instructional specialist, I became frustrated by my limited ability to impact school-wide change. I slowly realized that the power of change was in the hands of the principal and to effectuate change, I needed to become one.
I shared my interest in administration with my former high school principal, who was by then the school system’s human resources director. He told me that I could one day become a superintendent. I dismissed that idea. Whatever.
But I enrolled in education administrative courses, received my master’s degree and later my doctorate.
As a teacher, I had worked largely in a community of other women. When I became an administrator and throughout my graduate studies, I was surrounded by men.
Men have some clear advantages when pursuing administrator jobs. They tend to be viewed as natural disciplinarians and authority figures. Their informal meetings often pad their network of professional contacts. In many cases, they are aggressively encouraged to apply for administrator and central office jobs. Their family circumstances are not viewed as a hindrance to success, nor an obstacle to the time commitments expected of school leaders.
For many women, “mommy guilt” is real. Professional dreams and opportunities may be put on hold while raising children. And perception can be reality. When you do not see other women serving as superintendents or in the pipeline for those jobs, it sends a subtle message that perhaps you do not belong there.
Throughout my career, I was fortunate to have supervisors who rewarded my potential. I moved up the ranks in my school system, from assistant principal to principal, from supervisor of high schools to chief operating officer, and then to chief academic officer.
Though I had my superintendent certification, I was not sure I’d ever use it. I would have been happy to retire as chief academic officer.
Again, life had other plans. Last July, I was tapped to lead the same school system where I graduated high school and began my teaching career, the second-largest school system in Maryland.
There are 24 school systems in Maryland, almost evenly split between male and female superintendents.
Nationwide, the numbers tell a dismal story. Though women dominate teaching jobs, they comprise fewer than a quarter of superintendents. For African American women like me, the numbers are worse.
There weren’t many women to advise me as I moved up the ladder. I was often met with a wry smile from other women, followed by a “I don’t know how you do it.”
For more women to achieve the top job, more of us must be candid about how we do it. We must discuss the challenges and the rewards. We must build networks of support for each other in what can be a lonely job. We must help shift the mindset of school boards and search firms about what women leaders represent and can do.
Over the 110-year history of my school system, there have been a total of 18 superintendents. Only two women hold spots on the list. The first woman was appointed in 1999. Twenty years passed before the next one — me.
I do not want to be the last.
By Monica E. Goldson, Ed.D, interim chief executive officer, Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools