Empowered and Connected: How Surrounding Yourself with the Right People Propels Women in Education Leadership

Women in education leadership who surround themselves with the right people will find connection and support, feel less alone as leaders, and grow beyond what they ever imagined.

Starting out as a new principal, I was beyond excited to dive into my new role. I mapped out my 100-day plan, moved into the community I would be serving, and started scribbling out ways to connect with students and staff.

Before my official duties began at my new school, I attended an event called Nebraska School Administrator Days. Talk about intimidating. Sure, I knew a few current administrators, but I found myself suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people I didn’t know. Not only that, but they also all looked rather confident in what they were doing. I don’t remember much about that first Nebraska School Administrator Days, other than how I felt—like a freshman in college again—and the first elementary school principal I met. Her name was Josie. She and I have been friends now for over 10 years, and it all started with, “May I sit here?”

It’s such a simple phrase, but it’s one that can spark a lifelong relationship that rewards itself in more ways than you can imagine. As a woman in education leadership, I know how important connections with other female leaders are in building a strong, supportive network of peers. 

Take Risks to Reap the Rewards

I often reflect on how different my career would be now if I hadn’t felt brave enough to sit by Josie and strike up a conversation. In our roles as educators, it is very easy to sit idle and take limited risks. The education landscape is changing rapidly, and the principal role is evolving right along with it. I have seen and heard about many people walk away from the education profession. Why? One reason is that they faced challenges, and they were missing their network of people to help them overcome those challenges and forge ahead.

Taking risks can lead to big rewards. There certainly have been numerous times that I have questioned my willingness or strength to keep going forward. Without a doubt, if I hadn’t forced myself to be uncomfortable in the beginning of my principalship by building relationships with others and building my network, I would have walked away. In those questionable times, I relied on my best colleagues, who I now consider friends, to pull me through or along the rocky roads until I could stand on my own two feet.

Cultivate Connections

Once you make connections, ask for their contact information to stay connected. After Josie and I exchanged contact information, I had no idea where that would take me. But she quickly became a mentor to me, bridging the gap between what I learned in school and all kinds of things that I didn’t even know about. Similar to most jobs, when you get your degree, you learn the theory, but you don’t necessarily learn what it means in practice.

Remember to be that person Josie was for me as you grow more confident in your career. Invite colleagues or aspiring administrators to events that you attend and to join your network of people.

Other than building a solid colleague relationship with Josie, I learned about organizations like NAESP and the importance those support systems play in our professional careers. I joined the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership Community of Practice, where I found a courageous network of female leaders and moms who share ideas and support.

State and national conferences, like UNITED: The National Conference on School Leadership, presented by NAESP and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, are hands down one of the best places to make connections. In-person relationships grow into lifelong support systems with people across the country.

Push Beyond the Limits

Together, we push each other beyond the limits we thought possible. Josie encouraged me to join our state leadership team, so I did, serving as the federal relations coordinator that works with NAESP to make real changes in education policy. As such, I attended what now is known as the National School Leaders Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., where I spent several years advocating for public education with hundreds of others school leaders from Nebraska and across the country.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a leadership position, consider this a sign to do it. As a federal relations coordinator, I met people across the country who wrote books, gave inspirational speeches, and who were passionate educators trying to do what is best for students. Pretty soon my world went from a town of 600 to a world without limits. I then began to gain confidence in creating more opportunities for myself at the local and state level.

Pay No Attention to Imposter Syndrome

For women in leadership, imposter syndrome is very real. There have been many times that I felt as though my depth of knowledge was inept to those around me. But this network of women made me realize I was a better leader when I was around the people that I have built the strongest relationships with as a principal.

When I was brave enough to step outside my comfort zone and talk with others who were like-minded, fighting for the same things, it made the world feel not as big and lonely. The relationships I have formed in education have empowered me to be a better leader. They have pushed me to think outside the box more. It is proof that I am surrounded by the right people.

Find the Right People

When building a network, it’s natural to gravitate toward like-minded people, but it’s also important to find people who are from different backgrounds and demographics who can challenge your perceptions as you grow as a leader and personally.

There are so many ways to make these connections. In-person conferences at the local and national levels, communities of practice like NAESP’s Center for Women in Leadership, and even social media are great places to start. Follow as many people as you can on social media, and every time you meet someone in person, connect with them on social media and then see who they’re following.

Most days I exchange text messages to talk about bizarre situations I’ve encountered, ask for advice, or just send a quick hello so that they know I am thinking of them.

Our job as school administrators is more challenging than ever. Many of us are navigating new norms and challenges that one person alone cannot solve. It is now more important than ever before that we lean on each other for support. Build your circle with people you can count on to listen, encourage, offer advice, and share ideas. If you don’t know where to start, contact me. I bet we can learn a lot from each other.

Erin Sieh is an elementary school principal at Freeman Public Schools in Nebraska.