Pilar Vázquez-Vialva, the assistant superintendent of educational services in the Morgan Hill district in California, about 20 miles southeast of San Jose, was a single mother at 17.
Vázquez-Vialva, who has worked as an assistant principal in Tempe and Glendale, Ariz., and a principal in Chicago in her 23-year education career, credits her high school English teacher and counselor with getting her through the challenging period and ultimately inspiring her to become an educator: She wanted to do for others what some of the adults in her high school had done for her.
Schools were also a saving grace for Rahshene Davis, now in her 27th year in education and the executive director of curriculum and instruction in Houston and a former assistant superintendent in Philadelphia. They’re what allowed her and her friends to escape the challenges of growing up in 1980s Philadelphia.
The two women of color spoke to Education Week as part of a series of interviews of women in school leadership about the path to the central office—that level of bureaucracy above schools but below the superintendency—where women can sometimes languish.
Both graduated from the New York City-based New Leaders school leadership training program.
The interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.
How can the K-12 system help move women from the classroom, where they comprise nearly three-quarters of teachers, to the principalship, central office, and superintendency?
Vázquez-Vialva: We need to create pipelines. We need to create the opportunities for [women], a structured approach [that shows] we believe in our people. We believe in creating opportunities for them to learn and grow. We want to be able to give them different opportunities within a system to be able to do that. We don’t do that well.
Davis: I would say to build intentional and deliberate programs, to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for female classroom teachers who have the interest and the potential. Putting some money behind it as well, making a real commitment, being intentional, funding it, and creating some opportunities where female leaders and female teacher-leaders have an opportunity to network together and even grow together and develop together, and have mentorship [opportunities]. That will help build this pipeline for female leaders.
The second thing would be building the capacity of female principals, and even males we have in place right now, to do that for others, because I don’t know that that’s always a part of the principals’ training.
You’ve highlighted the importance of having a mentor. How has that shaped your career?
Davis: I had a vice principal when I was a teacher in Philadelphia—she has unfortunately passed on; her name was Sandra Pearson-Ruffin—[who] would reflect with me. She would come into my classroom, she would observe, and she took the time to give me feedback. I was always hungry—wanting to be better. She really took the time to spend with me and give me critical, direct feedback that was very actionable, that I could do something to change [my teaching] right then and make things better.
She was the one who talked to me about taking the first step out of the classroom to become a coach in my building and have a larger impact. She saw leadership potential in me when I wasn’t thinking of myself as a leader.
I never really thought about leaving the classroom and being the coach. She helped me to hone that coaching ability to be able to work with colleagues. When I got the offer to leave my school to go on [as] a district-level coach, it was [Ms. Pearson] I called.
When Ms. Pearson talked to me about going back to get my master’s, I did. In my master’s program I had a professor, Dr. Heidi Gross, who informally became a mentor.
She was the one who reached out to me to tell me about New Leaders because New Leaders was not even in Philadelphia. I had never heard of it. She called me one day [to say], “I’ve heard about this fabulous program; it’s called New Leaders For New Schools. I think you should do it.” I looked it up online, and I was like, “Why do you think I should do this? This is not even in Philly.” She [responded], “I read their mission and vision, and it’s aligned with all that you believe in, and everything that you talk about. I think you’d be great—and you can move.”
That was never in my thought—that moving would be a possibility. And I did. I would never have done it if Dr. Gross had never connected me to that opportunity, and then pushed me and said to me, “You can do this.” I wouldn’t have met Dr. Gross if it wasn’t for Ms. Pearson saying, “You need to go back to school.”
When you seek mentors, those opportunities begin to present themselves or open up for you.
Women can get stuck in central office. Given your experience, what advice would you offer?
Vázquez-Vialva: Know why you want to do it. It’s something I’ve been asked quite a bit. Am I going to go for that next position, the superintendent position? At this time, I don’t see the superintendency position being next. It could be.
So, why do you want to do this job? It seems like such a simple question. ... The higher you go in these positions at central office, the more removed you are from the classroom and the more entangled you are in bureaucracy and governance. That’s a whole other conversation. What does it really mean to be a superintendent or an assistant superintendent when you might have seven different bosses with seven different ideas for how you should be leading the district?
So just know your why.
Davis: Find a female sitting superintendent or a retired female superintendent and get mentorship from them. I think having a female who is doing the work or who has done the work, who can tell you about their leadership trajectory or their path, would be among the most important research and data that you can gather.
I know, oftentimes, they may seem unapproachable because they are the only one and they are busy. But you’d be surprised. I bet if you talked to those sitting superintendents or those who are retired, it was probably another female at some point who helped them. They would be more open than probably people would expect.
What can women in the central office do to get ready for when that opportunity presents itself?
Davis: Definitely school. Going back, whether it’s for a certification program [or] going into a leadership program. It’s going to help you to understand what you need to be prepared for that role.
There are also professional organizations that you can join so that you can be part of a larger network. There’s AASA, the School Superintendents Association. There are other programs you can join, and a lot of them have an aspiring superintendent program. I know NABSE [National Alliance of Black School Educators] has one. When you join those programs, you also become part of a network, and that just strengthens your knowledge, your expertise, and your experience.
What was your experiences in spaces where you were the only woman or woman of color in the room?
Vázquez-Vialva: I think two things opened up for me. No. 1: What can I do to support other women to have a seat at the table? Women, period. I’m not saying women of color, white women, Indigenous women. I’m just saying a woman. Now that I am sitting in these positions, how do I then support other aspiring leaders? How do I even tap their shoulder and say, ‘Have you even considered?’ Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Now in my position, I pay it forward.
I remember going to one of my former principals, when I was an AP, and saying, “Why am I the only Latina here? My students are Latinos.” The principal said to me, “You need to go find them and bring them to me.” I remember thinking that’s not a very good answer. That’s not right.
But I didn’t know what that meant at that time other than that didn’t seem right and you just pushed that on to somebody else.
I had to reflect on how it is that I was able to navigate the system and get into these positions that I am in. I don’t want to say that I was lucky, but I feel like I was a lucky one. But I also have skills and was able to show up and obviously I got the jobs.
Now in the positions that I am in I say, “What are we really doing to recruit leaders of color? What are we intentionally doing and are we creating the space, the place, the work environment where people of color would want to come to work to anyway?” Because that’s huge: Do I want to be the only one in a school district in a leadership position?
So that comment from back then, I still remember it very clearly. I remember thinking I just pushed it on to the leaders of color, the aspiring leaders of color who have no idea how to even get here.
Do we want to increase our diversity in our leadership cabinets or do we want to just say we have a diverse group?
What’s it like working on an all-female central office team, having worked on mixed teams?
Vázquez-Vialva: It’s huge. I have worked with all men’s teams as well. It’s different in a couple of ways. For us, we have an interesting dynamic, all four of us, we have very different strengths we can come to the table with.
We respect each other very much, and I think we can come to the table and engage in conversations that we might not all agree on, but we can understand somebody’s perspective but [say], “I don’t necessarily agree with your approach.”
Working with the all-men teams, I didn’t sometimes feel like my voice mattered as much. They weren’t mean. It wasn’t that they were mean. It’s just how society has conditioned these constructs. I just never felt like my voice was as valued or as important in some of the conversations, or I was excluded from some of the conversations. Like operations. I actually like operations, but I was excluded from some of those conversations.
I also think about how I contributed to not being part of that conversation. Was I like, “I want to learn—put me in, put me in, coach.” That kind of thing? Or was I more insecure in sitting on the periphery?
How have you balanced your role as a mother with your duties as an assistant superintendent in a pretty large district?
Davis: I think that having a network of support is extremely important. I was a single mom, but I had my mom and my grandma, who helped me; so, when I had to step away for opportunities to enhance or better myself and my career, my mom and my grandma and other members of my family really stepped up.
But I also helped my family to understand that this is why I am doing this, and you’re helping me to do this next thing by helping with my son. He was growing up; he was an adolescent. I was always very transparent with him as well. When I had to be away from him, he understood why, and he understood what was the angle, what was the thing that I was after, and I think it lessened [the impact]. Of course it was still hard, and it was a burden on both of us, but I think it wasn’t as hard because he understood the rationale behind it. He’s been there for every celebration, every graduation other than my undergrad.
What challenges did you face as you left the classroom for school and district leadership? How did you overcome them?
Vázquez-Vialva: At the high school there’s always something that’s happening in the evenings or the weekends, so it shifted the dynamics of the structure of my life. You are definitely working more hours. At that time—I had just had a son; he is now 16—and he was months old, and I was working a lot of hours.
I attribute [the success] to the support system that I have. I have an amazing husband, who took on a lot of the things at home that I couldn’t even share with doing because I was working. If you were to say what’s been probably hardest, it’s been that: It’s not being as available to my family. Now, my kids are grown, I’m like, “Gosh, I missed out on a lot.” For work, for career, for being able to do some things that I know are great for kids, for other kids. That’s the internal conflict that I’ve been back and forth with a lot.
Any parting tips for women educators who aspire to leadership positions?
Davis: One of the best pieces of advice that I received [was], “You don’t wait until you think you’re ready to apply or go for the next thing, because most men will apply, knowing they might only be 50 percent or 70 percent qualified. You are enough. Go ahead, and go for that next thing. It’s never going to be the perfect time. You’re never going to be perfectly positioned or perfectly ready.” That was so helpful for me.