03/19/2024 by Susanna Jones |

The Impact of Leading a Girls’ School

I began my career teaching Middle and Upper School history at The Spence School in Manhattan.  I hadn’t actively sought out a girls’ school; mostly I was happy to be in New York where so many of my friends were also headed.  However, I quickly fell in love with this place where girls did everything – captained all the teams; held all the leadership posts; and had all the classroom airspace and the teacher’s attention to themselves.  Uniforms and the absence of boys meant they paid little heed to how they looked, even on free-dress days, freeing them to devote their energy to school.  Indeed, I became so enamored with this type of school that at almost every future opportunity, I chose a job in a girls’ school.  I went on to work in four girls’ schools, at two of which I served as Head of School: The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT and the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD, for a total of 24 years.  Over the decades, my appreciation for girls’ schools only deepened, and did so in ways shared by my peers.  

Leading in a girls’ school encompasses dimensions of purpose, meaning and advocacy that I would venture to say we don’t find in other types of schools.  As McGehee Head, Kimberly Field-Marvin observes, “our schools are intentionally set up to ensure that girls thrive by developing agency and leadership skills. Our schools are specifically modeled to help girls stretch and grow.”  All schools have missions, of course, but in a girls’ school “empowering girls to advance the world is the driver!” to quote Kent Place School Head, Jennifer Galambos.  

“The design of our schools teaches girls that their voices matter, that their perspective matters,” echoes Laurel School Head, Ann Klotz.  “So many times in a coed setting, girls hide their brilliance to avoid attention to themselves,” as Bryn Mawr School Head, Sue Sadler observes.  In girls’ schools, by contrast, we see girls “revel in their curiosity, achievement, and learning.”  As Ellis School Head, Macon Finley says, our students “are able to be – if we do it right – fully themselves at school.”  This means they can be fully open to learning and have the courage to experiment and take risks.  In the process, as Hathaway Brown Head, Fran Bisselle says, “their voices gain in confidence.”  

Girls’ school students have not only the older students to look up to, but they have generations of alumnae who serve as role models, people in whom they can see their future selves.  The sisterhood forged through hard work and the cherished traditions that are hallmarks of girls’ school provides a lifetime network of support.  It shows up when an alumna recognizes the uniform you proudly wear to the supermarket after school.  It shows up when someone notices your ring at a party, and you feel an instant connection.  And it shows up when you connect with a fellow graduate on LinkedIn and land a job.    

Far from the white-gloved finishing schools of some people’s imagination, as Ann Klotz explains these schools are instead institutions “known for innovation, a willingness to try new pedagogy, new curricula, to experiment and to explore, which models for our students to do the same.”  They are places that Westover School Head, Polly Fredlund describes as centering “a culture of academic achievement that is both collaborative and limitless.”  We do this because of our responsibility to arm our students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a world that still discriminates against them but that sorely needs their compassion, empathy, intellect, and leadership.    

Leaders of girls’ schools find so much joy in thinking about “growing strong girls all the time!” to quote Macon Finley.  We find joy in nurturing and observing that growth as our students find their voices and develop their confidence, their sense of agency.  We find joy in their joy, their joy in learning, their joy in that sisterhood.   “In a world filled with hurt, harm and despair the energy, enthusiasm and optimism of the girls brings” Miss Porter’s School head, Kate Windsor, “hope.”  

Girls’ school leaders understand our work as having a higher calling. As Polly Fredlund argues, “Our schools interrupt outdated social norms and roadblocks of gender inequity, allowing girls to reach their full potential in school and beyond.”  We feel a responsibility to advocate not only for our own students, but for girls and women everywhere.  And most importantly, we aim to  “educate leaders who will make the world a better place,” as we always said at Holton-Arms, “this is sacred work.”  

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