The Path to Leadership for Women in Independent Schools

Group of paper airplane in one direction and with one individual pointing in the different way, can be used leadership/individuality concepts.( 3d render )

A Conversation with Aléwa Cooper

Lisa Lovering

Editor’s note: Lisa Lovering is president of Educator’s Ally, an educators’ recruitment and placement agency based in New York City. Following a National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) workshop focused on women educators and their paths to leadership, Lovering interviewed Greens Farms Academy’s lower school head, Aléwa Cooper. Below are some highlights from their conversation.

Aléwa Cooper

As a division head at a top independent school, you’ve achieved success. How did your journey unfold? When I was beginning my teaching career, I didn’t know that leadership was the area I would want to move into. It was actually my head of school at the time who first saw something in me before I saw it in myself. Initially — I imagine because I was comfortable in my own skin even as an associate teacher — I was put on various committees. So, by the time I got to my head teaching position at the second school where I worked, my head of school saw that I was committed, that I was involved in the community beyond my classroom, that I had some great things to say, and was willing to share experiences that needed to be heard.

You’ve worked with lots of female leaders in your career. Can you tell me about this experience? For the majority of my 20-year career in the independent school world, I’ve had a female head of school. That’s not exactly typical. So having that and having these women see something in me early on — well, that was really powerful. … Opportunities began to be presented to me, and when they were, my decision was to go with it, not to fight it. I would ask my supervisors what it was that they were noticing about me that led them to believe I’d be the right fit for whatever role it was. … They would tell me, we’d have a conversation, and I felt really well supported. 

Aléwa Cooper, head of lower school at Greens Farms Academy, gives a presentation on women leaders in independent schools at the National Association of Independent Schools conference. Also pictured are Jennifer Zaccara, head of school at Vermont Academy; Nanci Kauffman, head of school at Castilleja School; and Lisa Lovering, president of Educator’s Ally.

Would it be fair to say that seeing leadership embodied by women had a real impact on you? Yes, definitely. I think what it did was help me to feel like my voice could be heard and that what I had to say mattered because it was the women in my school who were doing the leading, at least for the majority of the time. 

In the NAIS workshop, you stressed the ability to be an effective networker as important for women aspiring to positions of leadership. You referenced the term “elite networking.” Can you tell me more about that? Elite networkers are proactive in their networking efforts. They don’t wait until they’re looking for a job to reach out to other people. These are professionals who actively and regularly stay in contact with and connect with people. They consider it part of their job. … The same way that many professionals schedule time for themselves every day so that they can respond to emails or do some strategic thinking, elite networkers make sure to set aside time to stay connected with contacts in their networks.

How do these elite networkers figure out which connections make the most sense for them? Elite networkers are masters at making sure that the value of their network is in the breadth and depth of their connections. They spend a lot of time cultivating their network and making sure they have the right people in their network who are also connected to other contacts who could be helpful.  The interesting thing is that it’s not about knowing a ton of people. It’s really about building a network that’s composed of the right number of folks who can help you achieve your particular goals, whatever it is that you choose to do, whether you want to be at the top of your game in your current position or whether you’re looking to advance in your career. 

Would it be fair to say that this kind of outreach needs to be thoughtful and strategic? Definitely. It’s not just a matter of contacting someone in your network because you need something at that very moment. This is an important relationship, and just like any important relationship, you have to work at it. You don’t just reach out when you have a need. You have to reach out on a regular basis and stay in touch the way you would with a friend. 

Are women doing as well as men when it comes to networking? There’s definitely inequity, and women have some work to do. The reality is as men look to advance their careers in education, they’re being brought into a pre-established network. For this reason, we as women, and especially those of us who are people of color, come into administrative or leadership roles at a bit of a deficit. To make advances, we have to be better at keeping up with our contacts and leveraging those networks when we need to. We need to understand the power of networking and do it.