Women Leadership Panelists Identify Their Role Models

 By Matthew Bain

After being recognized at the 2nd General Session, four of the brightest leaders in American public education took part in the 2015 Women in School Leadership Awards panel.

The panelists were finalists in two categories of the annual awards program -- one recognizing those who work as superintendents/assistant superintendents and those who work in administrative or building principal posts.

The panel consisted of Karen Cheser, deputy superintendent of Boone County Schools in Florence, Ky.; MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla.; Julie Jensen, executive director for student services of the Linn-Mar Community School District in Marion, Iowa; and Michelle Zundel, principal of Ashland High School in Ashland, Ore., who answered questions about women role models, changes needed in public education and technology in schools.

(Elia and Zundel were honored as the award winners in their respective categories earlier in the day.)

The following questions were asked by AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, who moderated the event. Highlights of the four finalists’ responses follow.

What needs to be done to better promote the presence of women leadership in America’s public school system?

Jensen: "Our job isn’t to make women grateful, it’s to make them ungrateful, because dissatisfaction leads to change.” That message she learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

Zundel: “Every child deserves the diversity in leadership that represents the diversity in the population … [Public education also] needs policies that are friendly and supportive [to fostering family and career].”

Cheser: “We [should] have more policies or innovations to allow women to have more time with children without dropping out of the pipeline. My child began calling Grandma “Mama” because my job took me away from home so much. My superintendent let me job-share for four years.”

Elia: “I was the chief facilities officer for my district. The only reason I had that job was because no man would take it for the salary offered … in one year I opened 12 schools.”

Do you have advice for aspiring women leaders? Did you have any role models?

Jensen: “One of the biggest keys is self-confidence. Mine grew when I was 16 or 17 and my grandmother decided I would finally learn to drive. She also emphasized her belief in lifelong learning.”

Zundel: “There was no girls basketball team at my school, and [my mother] somehow made it possible for me to play basketball at my school from 3rd to 9th grade … Before my first game she said, ‘Go out there; but it’s not enough to be the best girl player on the team -- you’ve got to be a good player.’”

Cheser: “My best advice is to not consider it a career ladder … but to love your job and do a really good job at it, and build relationships.”

Elia: “Thirty years ago, the first female principal in Hillsborough County history hired me and ended up becoming a huge role model for me.”

If you had the power to change anything in public education, what would it be?

Jensen: “Funding at 100 percent in every aspect of education and year-round education."

Zundel: “If I could change anything, this most powerful country in the world would truly fund a high-class education.”

Cheser: “Take away standardized testing as the way to tell what kids can say and do … Find more authentic ways to determine what kids can do what way they know.”

Elia: “We have done a grave disservice to teachers because we’ve allowed them to be the focus, in a negative way, of a dysfunctional public school system … When you talk about being a teacher, it’s a fallback position [rather than a source of pride], and that can’t be.”

How do you see technology as a platform to truly transform education?

Jensen: “Technology is always [about] preparing for the future that’s always changing. A district should plan two or three years out and then plan again.”

Zundel: “I’ve been very influenced by Yong Zhao, [who emphasizes that] a student can learn from anyone in any place in the world at any time … How is your school reflecting that?”

Cheser: “Technology starts with boards and superintendents. Boards should mandate technology to be used this many times per week or this many times per month as a base policy.”

Elia: “A recent study my district conducted took an average middle school of about 800 kids … If you could give assessment more quickly because every kid had access to devices they would need, you could finish the test in nine half-days. It currently takes two months to finish the test at such schools because there’s not enough technology.”

Final thoughts or advice?

Jensen: “Preschool funding – we need it. We need all students in preschool.”

Zendel: “We can change more quickly if we reach out to people outside of our organization [for funding, support and relationships].”

Cheser: “Treat every child as if they were your own in your district … If you treat them like your own kid, you’ll make the right decisions.”

Elia: “[I believe] thinking of the [job] you really don’t see yourself in, and then going there, is really powerful.”

(Matthew Bain is a third-year journalism student at San Diego State University.)