Women in the Superintendency: Inspiring Female Leaders

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Whenever I am traveling, I am always proud to share with fellow travelers that I am from San Diego County. What’s not to love? Beautiful year round weather, iconic beaches and sunsets, a world-renowned zoo, and some of the best cuisine and entertainment you can experience anywhere are just some of the reasons San Diego is known as America’s Finest City. But, one additional special distinction about San Diego County you may not know is that we are home to one of the highest percentages of female superintendents in the country. That’s right, over 60% of the superintendents in San Diego County’s 42 school districts are women! While the number of female superintendents in the United States is declining, San Diego County continues to lead the nation in hiring women to take the top spot in leading our public school districts, and I am proud to be one of them.

Learning to Lead 

I have spent over 30 years as an educator in this beautiful part of the country, but my roots go even deeper than that. I am a product of San Diego County public schools and a graduate of San Diego State University, the first college graduate in my family. After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked as an instructional assistant during the day and waited tables at night while I completed my teaching credential. Accepting my first teaching position was a dream come true after many years of hard work, and the accomplishment was made even more meaningful because my first principal was a woman who would go on to serve as a significant professional female role model on my path to the superintendency.

But, my leadership journey did not begin there. As women, our rise to leadership starts at a very early age and is influenced throughout the course of our childhood. Throughout our lives, we receive powerful messages and experiences that contribute (or don’t) to the development of our confidence and skills to lead. Our early exposure to leadership can have a significant impact on our perceptions about our own abilities to serve as leaders. This is one of the key reasons we must teach leadership, especially to girls, from an early age and highlight positive female role models, such as those women serving as school superintendents.

I have been fortunate to have an inspirational and supportive female role model throughout my life who helped to create a solid foundation for future leadership. That first influential leader was my mom. From a very young age, I was encouraged to lead by my mother, and her example served as a very powerful model of leadership for me. Whether it was in her role as PTA president in my school, or her civic activism to reduce drug and alcohol use among our community’s youth, or her passionate leadership as an elected governing board member in two school districts, my mom led by example and encouraged me to take on leadership roles throughout my life. Even when my teacher described me as “a bit bossy” on my kindergarten report card, my mom saw it as a positive and encouraged me even more! She taught and modeled the values of service, hard work, and optimism in the face of life’s challenges. 

This early example shaped my thinking and confidence as an educational leader, and it continues today. My mother’s grace, encouragement, and resilience are attributes I work to emulate in my family and workplace, and ones that I have worked to model for my own daughter.  As a teacher, principal, and now superintendent for a decade, my foundation for leadership was supported by the positive role model my mother played in my life and the lessons she taught me about leadership. 

My Path to the Superintendency

San Diego County is an educational community where female leadership is valued, encouraged, and celebrated, and this has been true since I began my teaching career. From the principal to the superintendent, women have been a part of the ranks of educational leaders here for decades, where women genuinely support and encourage one another, serve as role models, mentors, and sponsors for younger leaders, and maintain strong professional networks where we help each other grow in our leadership roles. And this is true of our male colleagues as well! We are an interconnected team of 42 district leaders who support each other in the work of creating great schools for kids.

While becoming a superintendent was not a goal for me initially, I was encouraged and empowered to take on higher levels of leadership by the countless female leaders who have served as my mentors and colleagues. I have had the great privilege to work for and with exceptional leaders, all of who helped to build my confidence and connectedness to other successful female leaders – two factors that contribute to a woman’s ability to lead. So, when my most important mentor and friend, Dr. Jennifer Jeffries, a retired superintendent herself, tapped me on the shoulder to encourage me to pursue the superintendent’s position, I was both excited and apprehensive. Could I actually do the job? Jennifer’s belief in me was the catalyst. Ten years later, as one of the longest serving superintendents in San Diego County, I can’t imagine doing anything else! 

Dr. Ann Staffieri, superintendent of the Escondido High School District, has been an educator in San Diego County for 29 years, and has also experienced first hand the importance of female mentors on her rise to superintendent. She writes, Mentors have been significant for me. I can think of several mentors who saw things in me often before I saw them in myself. From the first one who told me I needed to become an administrator, to the one who told me it was time for me to leave site administration and move to the District office, these mentors enabled me to confidently take each leap of faith into the next level of administrative responsibility.”

We all know that relationships are the foundation of our lives and careers. Making strong connections in a supportive professional network of female educational leaders is central to our success as superintendents, and I believe it is these relationships that set San Diego County apart. We all care as much about each other’s success as we do our own. This commitment to each other and to the success of our schools helps us face and overcome the challenges that are a part of rising to and serving as school superintendents – especially as women.

Paying It Forward 

For those of us in the job now, both men and women, we must make a commitment to moving more women forward by encouraging them to consider the superintendency as a viable and fulfilling career goal, and creating professional learning experiences that will prepare women for the job. In San Diego County, we are doing just that.

In response to this call to action, I am proud to have worked alongside some of the most talented female superintendents in Southern California to launch the first ever Aspiring Superintendent’s Academy for Female Leaders with AASA in 2019. We are using our experiences as women who have navigated the path to the superintendency as a springboard to support women from across the country to chart their own path to public education’s top job. The goal of our Academy is to bring together aspiring female superintendents to build their knowledge and confidence in their ability to lead by creating the time and space for learning, connection, and introspection. We are creating a strong, growing network of female educators who are providing encouragement and inspiration for each other now and into the future. The second cohort of this empowering and inspiring professional learning opportunity is beginning in January 2021, and we are taking applications now! https://aasa.org/aspiring-women.aspx

There has never been a more critical time for the most effective leaders to be leading our nation’s school districts – leaders whose attributes include the ability to inspire others to bring about meaningful and lasting change to meet the needs of all students, to foster collaboration and innovation, and to create fulfilling, family-friendly workplaces that strengthen our communities. These are the attributes that successful female educational leaders are bringing to our classrooms, schools, and districts everyday. Let’s all do our part to prepare, encourage, and uplift more women to bring these qualities to the role of superintendent. 

Together, we can turn the plateau of the female superintendent into the rise of women across this country who have the skills, experiences, and passion to boldly lead our nation’s school districts. 

Dr. Candy Singh
Superintendent | Fallbrook Union Elementary School District 

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