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“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”
Sheryl Sandberg may work in the tech industry, but her words ring true for women in education as well. The traditional career path for educational leaders has been teacher, assistant principal, principal, district office director, assistant superintendent and finally superintendent. In the past, one job was completely necessary to get the next and most educators would not ever be considered for a job without at least a few years in each of the prerequisite jobs.
This traditional career path is often difficult for women, especially those who are also mothers. Typically, the transition from assistant principal to principal occurs at a time in careers when people are likely to have young children. The incredibly long hours that a principal works are often not attractive to women and so, many choose to stay as an assistant principal or to go back to the classroom.
The great news is that the notion of a career ladder is disappearing! There are many viable options for career paths of leaders in our schools. I have counseled many talented assistant principals and department chairs to consider a move directly to the district office, usually into a director position. These jobs are intellectually demanding and require a great deal of skill and finesse but usually without the long hours required by a principal. Several of the most talented leaders with whom I have had the pleasure to work have moved directly from assistant principal to directors of curriculum, directors of technology and directors of professional development.
In every circumstance where I have asked an assistant principal to move to a job in the district office, they express concern about the “missing” principal job and what they believe will be a gap on their resume. Again, the great news is that the idea of the “jungle gym” is gaining acceptance. Career paths aren’t necessarily all the same or a straight shot to the top. I always counsel administrators to find and take a job that feeds their passion rather than the one that they think they should have next or the one they believe people expect to see on their resume.
In the end, success in our jobs will occur when we are doing something that we find meaningful and important. For some women, that job is principal and for others it’s a district office job. Both paths are valid and important and we need to recognize the value and support our colleagues in either choice.