More than half of public school principals are women, and for many of them their jobs as school leaders and mothers are inextricably linked.
That connection between the professional and personal motivated some principals to start Moms As Principals—part professional-learning community and part support group where they share ideas about running schools and balancing the demands of the job and motherhood.
Their motto is “all kids are our kids,” a reflection of a shared belief among the group’s members: They see no distinction between the children in the schools they run and the ones they are raising at home.
“Oftentimes in our day-to-day work—whether at home or at school—we refer to our own children and the kiddos in our classrooms as ‘our kids,’ ” said Tracey Allen, who ended the year as principal at Wilson Elementary School in Gridley, Calif., and is one of the group’s founding members.
“That’s kind of the common thread between being a mom and a principal: We want all of our kids to succeed, regardless of whether we gave birth to them or not. They are all ours,” Allen added.
The Moms As Principals group is meant to buttress women in education leadership positions and provide a source of expertise where they take advantage of each other’s strengths. The members say they can’t always go to their male colleagues—whom they describe as supportive—with every problem they have. As principals, they are often the only ones in an administrative position in their buildings. And with the long hours principals put in—federal data show they work, on average, 58.6 hours a week—having colleagues who share similar challenges with balancing their career with their parenting duties is welcome, they said.
“What I love most about the group is that I can show that vulnerability,” said Lynmara Colón, the principal of Mary Williams Elementary School in Dumfries, Va., who tapped into the group’s brain trust to find an appropriate answer to a parent’s query about the importance of recess in school.
“You can’t do that with staff or with your boss,” said Colón, the mother of 14-year-old twin girls. “You are expected to have the answer. The same with motherhood. A lot of people are like ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Well, I really don’t.”
The group’s origins were on Twitter with the hashtag #PrincipalsInAction that school leaders widely use to post tweets, snapshots, and inspirational nuggets about their jobs.
Allen, along with Lindsy Stumpenhorst, the principal of Washington Elementary School in Sterling, Ill., and Kelley Begley-McCall, the principal of Graber Elementary School in Hutchinson, Kansas, started messaging and realized their dual experiences as principals and mothers were similar, Stumpenhorst said. Around February 2016, they branched off to start their own blog, which also spawned a #MomsAsPrincipals Twitter hashtag, which has since taken off.
The loose-knit virtual community now includes principals from across the country and a few international school leaders. They range from newcomers to veterans, and boast members from primary, middle, and secondary schools, and private and public schools. Their children also range from babies to young adults in the workforce—giving the women a vast reservoir of knowledge to share with each other, they said. They share thoughts and resources on their blogs and on Twitter. But the primary communication tool is Voxer, a mobile message app that allows them to stay connected around the clock and chime in when it’s convenient, whether at the grocery store or during a lunch break.
“Even though we came together originally to push one another to blog, we realized there was a need for this unique position of women in leadership that are trying to balance all the things between mom, wife, educational leader, friend, sister, etc.,” Allen said. “Oftentimes we put ourselves at the back burner because we are trying to appease the workload around us. This is a way for us to come together and challenge one another, whether it is through blogging or getting out of our comfort zone to throw out a question or a problem that maybe one of us has experienced or can relate to—school or home—and continue to celebrate one another.”
Questions the group grapples with can range from hiring staff, conducting teacher evaluations, and having difficult conversations with parents to what to pack for their own children’s lunches.
“It’s just uncanny how so many times I go, ‘oh my gosh we’re thinking the same thing at the same time, but we’re on two different coasts,’ ” said Liz Garden, the principal of Florence Roche Elementary School, in Groton, Mass. “Yet we can connect, and I feel like ‘Ok, this is my support group that I don’t have in my own school.’”
Melissa Kartsimas, the principal of John F. Kennedy School, an elementary school in Schiller Park, Ill., said sharing ideas about how to work smarter have been the most helpful.
Last year, Begley-McCall had to make some adjustments after a boundary change increased the number of students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals at her school. About a quarter of the incoming students had experienced significant trauma in their lives, and she needed assistance to prepare her teachers, Begley-McCall said.
She turned to Moms As Principals.
She came away with reading recommendations and ideas on developing closer working relationships with local mental health providers, among others, she said. Her school also held an open house for incoming parents to meet the teachers and it has now expanded how it communicates with the school community, going beyond Facebook to include phone calls, texts, emails, print, and message boards to ensure that messages reach all parents, she said.
The biggest benefit, she said, came from the confidence boost that she could manage the change. The group also provided her with “the guidance on how to lead [the teachers], by providing them with as much support as possible,” she said.
The women who make up the core group had never met face-to-face as a group until last month when they presented at a national principals conference in Philadelphia. (A #DadsAsPrincipals hashtag was created by male principals during the conference, and has quickly attracted a community of followers.)
Claire Giardino, an elementary school principal from Athens, Ohio, said the group operates on trust and frank exchanges.
“We trust each other so much that if I said this is the situation I have in my building and this is my thought, that anyone of them can turn around and say ‘I don’t like that idea. This is not a good idea. This is what I would do.’ And I am not offended by that at all. I love it.”
The bond has made them better leaders, principals, and mothers, they said.
Colón said the back-and-forth and communications with the group’s members has helped her to make peace with the fact that she can’t do everything. She doesn’t like to cook and when she does it takes two hours, so she’s learned to let that go.
“It’s like Pinterest type of leadership,” she said of the pressure-cooker nature of the job and the expectations of perfection. “You have to have it all, your house needs to be clean, your kids need to be fed, you have the straight-A children, with no problems. They behave because you are the principal. No. It’s real. It gets messy.”
“You can live your dream of being in leadership and being a mom,” she continued. “I don’t think that you have to choose.”