06/21/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Janet Durgin: My Journey to Headship

by Janet Durgin, head of school at Sonoma Academy

Janet Durgin

This spring, CS&A is shining a spotlight on women in leadership. This piece is one of a series of stories about female leaders in independent schools, the importance of mentorship, and their professional journeys. Find the full series here.

CS&A is proud to have hosted the third-annual Women's Institute on June 14 in Boston, an event designed to support women and their allies in the education community. Our Placement and Search Groups are dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership roles as part of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

My path to headship was unintentional, peripatetic, and not one I would recommend to an ambitious young woman today. If you know you want a headship, I say go for the NAIS/EE Ford Fellowship for Aspiring Heads or a Klingenstein program. Do read Barbara Chase’s blog for some excellent tips. I, on the other hand, began my path to headship with little more preparation than a taste for adventure and exploration. I was insecure and had little idea of my capacities.

I did love the community and energy of schools. The public elementary school I went to on the South Side of Chicago was alive with experimentation. The teachers, many formed at the University of Chicago, were progressive, steeped in Dewey, and brilliant. Mrs. Lawrence, my first-grade teacher, tall and dignified in tweed suits, with ginger hair and powdered-over-freckles, taught me to read. I remember the moment when the words crystallized and formed into a ribbon of meaning that carried me, enchanted, into a world of possibility.

In high school, and then in college, I fell in love with French and was besotted with the dictionary, tracing the roots and history of words. I cycled solo around the Cap de Corse, sleeping in hostels or camping in olive groves. After I met my husband, we lived and worked in the Congo and backpacked through East and North Africa and Asia.

As a young teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon School (MA), I sat in chapel, pews polished first by serge wool suits, then by denim. As we sang “Sainted ones with faith triumphant have upheld her walls with love,” I came to feel deeply connected with those long passed—founders, students, and other nervous young teachers—whose destiny had brought them to this beautiful chapel and verdant campus overlooking the Connecticut River.

My ambitions were focused on being the best French teacher I could be, while also juggling sports, dorm duty, and, eventually, children of my own. In my second year, there was an opening for a house director. I had the notion that I might be able to improve the discursive nature of our long evening meetings. Nonetheless, I was surprised when the dean of residential life, Jacqueline Smethurst, offered me the position, despite my relative lack of experience and my adventurous spirit that chafed at dormitory life.

But, I found that I liked being in charge, creating procedures that improved dorm life, and holding concise yet congenial staff meetings. While running the dorm afforded more time at home with my small children, we were broke. I began to volunteer for any task that needed doing and carried with it a small stipend: planning a holiday vacation schedule for the international students, teaching summer school, playing factotum for the Northfield Counseling Institute, taking groups of students overseas.

When the director of international programs took a sabbatical, my immediate boss, Academic Dean Charlotte Rea, asked me to serve as interim. I poured through thick reams of budget reports and, in a time of financial duress, delighted in finding pots of unspent line items and depositing them at Charlotte’s feet. Without particular direction or desire to “advance,” I was absorbing the scope and complexity of programs and operations that hold our schools together.

Jacqueline was appointed head of school and charged me with leading a committee tasked with reframing Opening Convocation. I thought only august and tweedy faculty members headed up such endeavors. But again, I found creating a team and attacking a problem enlivening. I was intrigued by the process of analysis, identifying issues and possible solutions, reshaping certain traditions and launching new ones. I started to have the faintest glimmer that I was good at thinking about systems, that perhaps I had some, drum roll, please…leadership qualities!

When the department chair position opened up, Jacqueline suggested I throw in my hat. Walking out of the faculty meeting where the decision was announced, a long-serving English teacher offered his condolences (his sarcasm was lost on me). I turned to thinking about how to be the best department chair in a time when the pedagogy and context for the teaching of world languages was radically changing. I asked Jacqueline if I could exceed budget to hire a curriculum specialist to help create common outcomes and multi-faceted assessments. She approved my request and I sensed she approved of my vision for the department and, dare I say, my ambition.

I was appointed dean of curriculum just as the school was launching an innovative and cutting-edge strategic plan. One of many significant charges, including creating a new schedule, was developing an integrated sequence of humanities courses (for the record, English does not want to be “yoked” with history). Like the ribbon of meaning that crystallized when I was learning to read, I began to see my skills and competence emerge from the crucible of challenging, high-stakes assignments.

Recognizing my potential and encouraging me to cultivate it, Jacqueline sent me to the Head’s Network Leadership Seminar where I met five legendary leaders who served as instructors and mentors. Apparently, one of them gave my name to a search consultant as shortly after I was asked to submit materials for a head search at a school down the road. I was uncertain if I was ready and called one of the Seminar leaders, Burch Ford, then head at Miss Porter’s School, who offered to meet halfway between our schools. Only later did I fully appreciate that this busy woman dropped everything to meet me in a coffee shop in Springfield, MA and say, go for it. These women—Burch, Charlotte, and Jacqueline—believed I could do things long before I did. Their mentorship was critical in helping me recognize my own abilities and Burch gave me the last push I needed to leap. I encourage you to search out individuals committed to mentorship, who, because they are further down the path, recognize your potential and support your trajectory.

I didn’t get that search. And neither did the other woman finalist. They reopened it and hired a man. However, the next year, I was asked to join seven searches. By that time, I was committed to taking on the challenge of a headship and prepared to be the best candidate I could be. I met with all the administrators in my orbit, taking meticulous notes in a handwriting I don’t recognize today. I developed talking points for each facet of the interview process and inveigled friends to role play interviews. I was a finalist in three searches when Sonoma Academy (CA) offered me the opportunity to be their founding head of school.

Though the invitation to build a team and create a school from scratch was the opportunity of a lifetime, I cried every day of my last three months at NMH. I was moving my family cross country for a school that was as yet only an idea. Where would I find the meaning and richness that history provides, that I had found so compelling in the Mount Hermon chapel?

I needn’t have been concerned. History spins itself out of our moment-to-moment experience and before too long there were many stories that started with some version of “in the beginning.” After all, what more compelling story is there than founding a school? And what more compelling story of emerging leadership than your journey of increasing confidence and skill? If you’d like, I’ll meet you for coffee some afternoon and we’ll talk about it.

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