04/21/2019 by Marlene Shaw |

Marlene Shaw: My Journey to Headship

by Marlene Shaw, CS&A Senior Consultant

Marlene Shaw Stay connected with CS&A
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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.


It is a bit daunting to reflect upon a professional journey and share it. Every year of my long life since age five has been spent in schools—as a student, a teacher, counselor, division head, head of school, and now as a consultant. Every journey is different. I have certainly enjoyed mine and encourage every young person—especially women—to seek opportunities that you care about and enjoy.

Luck, circumstance, hard work and a passion for learning—those are the factors that I think about when reflecting back over my journey to a headship. I sought a headship after many years as a division head. My journey evolved over years, and I have come to value the many and varied experiences that I had along the way.

Circumstances, and luck, found me growing up in the south with parents who loved me dearly and consistently encouraged me to work hard. Their message was that by working hard, I would be prepared for the opportunities that would come along. More on that later. For me, the loving family and the positive encouragement set the foundation that equipped me for my journey.

Having worked hard in college, I graduated with a double major in English education and math education. With my degree, I was off to Fairfax County, Virginia to begin work as a public school teacher, and I absolutely loved it. Traveling from south Louisiana to work in one of the largest public school districts in the country and living in a cosmopolitan area was more exciting than anything I had done before, and I promised myself to take full advantage of all that I could. I was the one volunteering to represent the school at a professional development event or asking to attend a special conference. In hindsight, I probably drove my school administrators a bit crazy, but they did their best to provide professional opportunities for me, the young woman from the south, and I took advantage of them.

Soon, I realized that I would need another degree in order to advance, and so I applied to graduate school to study counseling, for I had become hooked on figuring out how best to help my students grow. Upon completion of my master’s degree, I applied for a job as a middle school counselor at a large, excellent independent school back in my home state. The move from an outstanding public school to an outstanding independent school was eye opening. I never went back to public education because I saw the opportunity to have an impact in ways that seemed impossible in the public arena.

This is where the luck part comes into play. After several years of working hard to create a counseling program where one had not existed, I was asked to become the interim Middle School Head when the Head had to leave in the middle of the year. I was very lucky to assume such a role at a young age. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed the administrative role, and my school Head asked me to take the role permanently. On the hot sunny day when I was named as the new Middle School Head, one of my favorite students, son of a prominent businessman and socialite mom with whom I had a good relationship, asked me this question: “Mrs. Shaw, why didn’t we get a real principal?” Stunned, I asked him what he meant by that question. “Well,” he said, “you know, a man, a real principal.” Sadly, he was probably voicing a question he likely had heard at home, and certainly had heard in the halls of the school. And so that was my introduction to female leadership in independent schools.

Loving the energy level in middle schools and desirous of addressing the emotional and social issues of that age group, I sought another division headship in a middle division and was lucky enough to find one in another strong K-12 school in Texas where I had additional opportunities to found and co-lead a S.E.E.D group at my school, in addition to running a large division. During my tenure there, we restructured the middle school and constructed a new building designed specifically for our students. It was during this time I realized the importance of connecting with like-minded professional women and getting involved in professional organizations such as National Association of Principals for Schools for Girls (Heads Network). My head of school had invited me to participate with him in the organization, and he became a great mentor along my journey.

My first headship was at Chatham Hall (VA), a girls' boarding school, but it was not the first school where I had applied to be head. As a first-time head, I had much to learn and worked hard at finding mentors who could help me navigate through the labyrinth of bond financing, fundraising practices, and strategic planning. There were many challenges, some successes, and quite a few surprises. That is why you always have to be asking questions and learning. If only I had been able to have an executive coach to guide me along that arduous journey as a new head. While at Chatham Hall, I served on the board of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools and led accreditation teams for a number of Episcopal schools. Serving on an accreditation team is a terrific learning experience and a great opportunity to meet talented folks doing innovative work.

For me, getting deeply involved in organizations that supported education and where I could connect with talented professionals has always been important. For example, for nine years I served on the Education Records Bureau Board (ERB) of Directors and as a Vice President. The independent school leaders from across the country and public school superintendents from high-performing public schools with whom I served taught me so much about education and leadership.

In 2003, following my passion for girls’ education, I accepted the position of Head of School at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, a PK-12 school for 850 girls in Memphis. Again, working with the board, we developed and implemented a strategic plan that strengthened an already outstanding academic program, producing significant numbers of national merit scholars and presidential scholars. In the resulting capital campaign, we raised funds for three new academic buildings to accommodate the innovative program enhancements. Serving on the Board of the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools and the Board of the Memphis Association of Independent School added to my knowledge of school governance and strategic planning.

My journey has been incredibly full, very rewarding, and enriched by the many students, colleagues, and parents I met along the way. Good luck to all aspiring leaders—seize the opportunities and create some of your own! The journey is worth it.

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