by Maggie Pavlik, Upper School Director
In late March, Kim Zimmer told me about the Wonder Woman Conference, hosted by Leadership and Design in Palo Alto, CA this summer. With Kim’s signature enthusiasm, she listed the conference’s merits and sent me a link, asking “Can we go?!” Not surprisingly, this link opened to a photo of a gold superhero mask, which gave me pause. Nonetheless, I combed through the website and while not sold on committing a week of my precious summer, Kim and I applied for funds for this professional development.
The week turned out to be full of surprises. First, this conference was held at the Castelleja School, which the Technology Team visited last fall as part of the research process for VMS’s technology evolution initiative. Castelleja, an all girls school, has a makerspace that is awe inspiring. Second, this was an all women’s conference, and the facilitators made a point to talk about women in leadership - the incredible benefits and the unparalleled demands. And finally, I was amazed at the participants; fifty women from all over the country in many different roles in schools and in governing organizations of schools who were at different points of their career.
The conference was two-fold really. The first piece, led by an inspirational female Head of School in Oakland, talked about the idea of “Signature Presence” of leaders and teachers. And while I could get into all the jargon and philosophy behind this idea, I will simply say that Signature Presence is about being true to your best self and allowing that to shine in your leadership. The second part of the conference was about walking through the Design Thinking process when tackling the challenges of why there are so few female leaders in Independent Schools. This problem was presented to us via Skype from the Interim President of National Association of Independent Schools, Donna Orem. It was quite a treat to have the opportunity to Skype with her after seeing her on stage at the conference in Baltimore last March in front of a crowd of thousands.
By the end of the week, I walked away with many gifts. The first was the idea of your signature presence guiding your every decision. In the Upper School at VMS, we cite rapport building as a cornerstone of our work. I appreciate the ways teachers bring their own signature presence to classes and to their advisory, which is the catalyst for true rapport to grow between students and teachers. I am reminded to honor the person I am, and allow for vulnerability, growth, and mistakes. As I begin my new role as Director of Upper School, I have new resolve to let my principles, beliefs, and ultimately, my signature presence, dictate the role and not the other way around.
Part of who I am is distinctly female, which relates to the second gift. This conference made me reflect upon my brief career path. After serving as a teacher and then Director of Middle School at VMS, I left to stay home with my children while they were infants and toddlers. My oldest will turn ten this year and I am just now returning to a similar job title I held ten years ago. The gift of motherhood is cherished. I am dedicated to “owning” that my kids will indeed be in my office after school and could be sitting in my desk chair. I recognize that I need to be a parent to them as much as I am an administrator to the school and that, like the cross-age relationships that help ground and guide our students, being a mom to younger kids will only strengthen my perspective on our upper school. The return to the workplace, the demands on families, schedules, sports, activities—all can be overwhelming for women in leadership positions. At VMS, and in this little town of Vail, I am grateful for our community. My husband’s workplace allows him flexible hours. VMS moms and dads have picked up my children to get them to hockey, soccer, ice skating, and there have been plenty of playdates and ski dates after 1:00 dismissals. Communities like ours make it possible for women raising children to hold leadership positions.
The third gift was the introduction and guidance through the Design Thinking process. Design thinking is a formulaic way to problem solve as a group. Orem, NAIS’s president, cited research that in the past ten years, NAIS has not “moved the needle” on hiring more women and people of color in primary leadership positions. Our group challenge was to think of ways to improve these statistics. While I could say more about the underwhelming statistics in Independent School leadership, I would rather focus on the idea of Design Thinking. There are many stages in the process. The first they call Empathy. It is a time to gather research and stories from people to understand “Why is this the way it is?” While we don’t name it, this empathy seeking research is a trademark of Vail Mountain School. Whether we are discussing empathy in morning meetings in the Lower School classrooms, during advisory, while teaching PE in middle school, or in the midst of a history or English class in Upper School, our students hear the word empathy often during their day. Sharing a story is what gives us human connection and the connection to other humans is why we want to problem solve in the first place. In our fast paced world of technology, innovation and problem solving, empathy plays a distinct role.
The design thinking process is one VMS is familiar with already. This year’s 9th grade will take a functional design course in our new makerspace where they will have to design, create, and then troubleshoot a product (are you thinking of Shark Tank?). One cannot design until they understand the need for that tool, so the ninth graders will indeed start with empathy research. In future years, I would like to see seniors use the design thinking model in their Senior Projects. As a faculty, this year we will form committees to address policy and discipline in the upper school. Student Government will need to use the design thinking process to understand the needs of their constituents. There is no doubt that the more we use design thinking, the more apt we are to become creative and innovative problems solvers, which, by the way, seems to be one of the most valued skills in today’s workplace.
The final gift is one from VMS. Vail Mountain School proudly commits thousands of dollars to professional development for its teachers each year. This summer, collectively, teachers and administrators attended writing workshops, “hands-on” science conferences, Advancement and Leadership training with ISM and NAIS, and a computer science course at Harvard University. There were many others, as well. They talked to inspirational leaders, networked with peers across the country, and gained insight into “best practices” used at like-minded institutions. Vail Mountain School’s remarkable commitment to educating its teachers is what keeps a little resort-town-independent-school relevant, and why we believe that VMS provides an education that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
So today, I profess my gratitude for the opportunity to serve as a female leader with a signature presence, an innovative thinker, and a true Wonder Woman. Watch out–you may see Ms. Zimmer and me in the hallway donning our superhero masks!