Who doesn’t love a good story—especially one with an unexpected twist? At Sandy Spring Friends School, the typical story of women in leadership—one rife with underrepresentation, bias, and lack of support—reads differently. Here, we seek to create a place of belonging for all, and when it comes to leadership, we aim to ensure that women are empowered and equipped with the training, tools, and support they need to lead well and advance their careers. Recently, we had the chance to sit down with three of the many impressive female administrators at SSFS, each of them currently engaged in a leadership training and empowerment program tailored specifically to women.
We hope you enjoy reading the highlights of Mónica’s story, as well as the other two in this series focused on women in leadership at SSFS: Rasha El-Haggan and Sarah Barton Thomas.
Q&A with Dr. Mónica Ruiz P '25, '31
Congratulations—I understand you applied and were selected for participation in a women’s leadership development program. Tell us about the program, and what you are learning from it.
Mónica: I found Excelle through a group of women leaders at independent schools—several of them heads of school—who I meet with monthly and who serve as unofficial mentors to me. There are two cohorts in the program: the “Executive” cohort for current heads of school, and the “Aspiring” cohort for senior administrators like me. As part of my interview process at SSFS, I stated my desire to have an executive coach. During my first year, Rodney [Head of School Dr. Rodney Glasgow] played that role, while I explored different models of coaching. In leadership in general and especially with highly academic positions in particular, I find that women’s stories don’t necessarily have a space. Women’s epistemology—what we know and how we know it, often through our life experiences—is not always acknowledged. And, what is recognized as good leadership in a man is often viewed very differently when it's a woman in the position of power. I’m the first female (as well as the first person of color) serving in this capacity in the School’s history, so finding tailored support seemed essential. Excelle was a no-brainer, in that it offers one-on-one mentoring, a spirit of sisterhood, and a forum that specifically targets the needs of women in leadership. I’m very grateful to have my head of school’s moral, ethical, and financial support to do this.
Some of the takeaways for me thus far are the crucial need for women leaders in independent schools to be able to come to the table from a space of authenticity, not leaving our identifiers at the door. It’s also important that we listen to our inner voice and not have to prove to others what we know is true. The group at Excelle has given me the feeling of being a member of something bigger than me. It’s a safe space—I’ve found “my people.” We show up authentically and share camaraderie, sponsoring each other when opportunities for growth come along. As women leaders, we don’t often get to be surrounded by so many other phenomenal women who are all great at what they do, and it elevates all of our leadership to experience that.
How do you plan to bring what you’re learning through your leadership training back to SSFS?
Mónica: When I started at SSFS, the community was emerging from the worst of COVID. We were investing our time, effort, and resources to support our students as they reentered school full time, but the adults in the community also needed a higher level of support. The community was interested in and in need of coaching and mentorship outside of their particular department or division, and I’ve seized the opportunity to become an unofficial coach to many of my colleagues. By the end of the year, I was regularly meeting with seven mid-level administrators who were not my direct reports or in departments I oversee. They needed someone to hold space for them from a vantage point of growth. Going through Excelle’s program is equipping me to do this coaching and mentoring better.
One of the things I’d like to see at SSFS is the creation of a faculty of color network, where we work specifically to support the needs of faculty and staff of color. The experience of people of color in predominantly white institutions is unique, and we have different needs. We also have unique competencies and skills, and we need to put them to work in service to all in the community. I want to give more thought to this, continue to engage in initial planning for such a network myself, and also want to collaborate with other stakeholders in the community to formalize cohorts for professional coaching.
As I step into this new professional season of life as the newly-appointed Head of School at Academia María Reina in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I find myself reflecting upon the 26 years of being away from home. The chance to return after dedicating my life’s work to educational spaces rooted in faith, justice, and belonging is a privilege. I will take with me all I have learned at SSFS, its rootedness in community, its relentless commitment to belonging, its creativity to innovate curriculum, and particularly the authenticity with which Dr. Rodney Glasgow, mentor and friend, leads the school. I will also take with me the warmth of this community and every friendship gained. I know I will always have a place here at SSFS and hope Springers will visit me and discover the wonders of the island I get to call home.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve encountered in your leadership journey?
Mónica: Stepping into this role during COVID and co-clerking the COVID Response Team (CRT) has been my biggest challenge. It became clear we needed to assemble a small group of community experts to determine the best path forward. I was able to create the CRT Advisory Board that incorporated the voices of clinicians, statisticians, and scientists into our decision-making process. Although CRT met weekly, adding an advisory board—a diverse group that could act as a sounding board to periodically affirm our decisions, caution, or guide us—was pivotal.
The other thing that comes to mind has been both a challenge and an opportunity: the fact that there isn’t a prescribed approach to the role of assistant head at this school. I had a job description when I was hired, but once I arrived, it had already evolved. This role requires nimbleness—operating from goodwill rather than ego, and detaching myself from the title or the job description to truly be a servant leader. This year—my second—the job has morphed again! The ever-changing nature of the role, in light of what is needed at the time, is something I see as both a challenge and a joy. It requires a constant willingness and openness to learn new things and reconsider my approach to leadership—in tune with the Quaker concept of continuing revelation.
What attracted you to SSFS, and what do you appreciate most about serving as a leader in this community?
Mónica: I was looking for inspiring leadership—talking the talk and walking the walk. I was also looking for another Quaker environment, because I can really see the positive effects of Quaker philosophy—it’s truly in its own category—on my style of leadership. Along with my colleagues, this philosophy leads me to promote inclusivity in processes, seek unity rather than consensus, and when I disagree with someone, I register my disagreement but don’t stand in the way of growth. Quaker philosophy truly offers a different—special—way of approaching the business of running a school, how we manage teams, and how we shepherd people in order to effect change.
Prior to coming to SSFS, I had a long tenure at a phenomenal institution that was supportive of my growth, but it was time for me to stretch my wings and put my capacities to the service of something bigger. When I arrived, we were bursting at the seams with enrollment and I know what that demands of the leadership. I wanted to be a part of an administrative team that was on the brink of something huge. The fact that SSFS was putting its resources to the creation of an Office of Institutional Equity, Justice, and Belonging (OIEJB), whose sole objective is to ensure that we are living our Quaker testimonies to the best of our ability—from a business, organizational culture, and curriculum standpoint—was a game changer for me. It was clear that IEJB was a strategic imperative backed by institutional commitment. There’s a shared language around IEJB, and that makes leadership much easier—it fosters a positive environment; not just that, it also fosters excellence.
Along the lines of equity, I think it’s important for the community to see a woman as second in command of the School, and it’s also important to see her show up on the sidelines of a game and other school activities. I love working in a place where I can lead with my full self. This is something I will greatly miss, and hope to take with me when I begin to lead San Juan’s premiere school for girls, Academia María Reina.
How does your identity as a woman impact your leadership, and what other aspects of your identity inform your approach?
Mónica: I’m a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Puerto Rico; I did my undergrad work there, and my family still lives on the island. As a result, cultural competency has been integral to my praxis, and I believe my identity and experience helps me to support underrepresented groups. I tap into other ways of knowing that come from my cultural upbringing, but might not otherwise have a place in discussions about pedagogy, discipline, and self-regulation. I’m proud to have accomplished my goal of being one of the <1% of Latinos who have a PhD, and to support and inspire students in our community to reach their own goals, I partnered with Upper School faculty to formally launch the Hispanic/Latinx Affinity Group.
I also navigate this institution as the mother—of two SSFS students. Even though I know motherhood is seen by some as a distraction or potential deficit in the professional realm, with some people thinking it compromises your ability to show up for the organization, to push initiatives forward, or to take risks, from my vantage point, motherhood is an asset. As the single mother of three girls (ages 9, 16, and 20), I’ve found that motherhood has made me nimble, creative, and entrepreneurial, especially in overcoming the traditional gender roles from my community of origin without a traditional support system. I remember regularly swapping childcare with the other moms in the Bilingual Moms of Athens group I founded (a support group for women affiliated with the University of Georgia) when I was in the middle of my Ph.D. and running the Spanish dorms. This allowed us to attend conferences and develop our careers. Having a circle of support has been absolutely critical to both holding a leadership position and engaging in professional development, and I believe all women need their own circle in order to accomplish both. I strive to lead by example. I want my girls to see that it’s possible to realize your life’s dream and live your life’s vocation if you never give up on growth. And because two of my children are SSFS students, this gives me a different vantage point and grounds me in my commitment to making the School’s climate and experience the best that it can be. Experiencing the privilege of a top-quality education as a parent also motivates me to work toward all children receiving the same quality of care and education.
How have you surprised yourself as a leader?
Mónica: I come from a long line of survivors—strong women—but this past year, leading in times of COVID, I’ve surprised myself in terms of the level of resilience I have. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so it’s been surprising to realize I’ve developed a newfound ability to accept what is…and release it. It starts with identifying my scope of influence and who I can invite in to foster collaboration and change. Then, if it’s not a part of my circle of influence, I let it go, from a space of grace and gratitude.
What’s one practical leadership tip you can share with us?
Mónica: I’ve been thinking a lot about something one of the sitting heads of school in Excelle’s Executive Cohort recently shared: “Suspend judgment to wallow in curiosity.” She was talking about self judgment, and the need to avoid the negative self-talk that we as women are conditioned to engage in. Be curious about yourself, and willing to ask questions like, What happens if…?, or How might I…?
What’s your next right thing in leadership?
Mónica: For some time, it's been my goal to become a head of school at the right time and place, and I'm grateful to have recently discovered that that time is next school year, and that place is Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised. During my remaining time at SSFS, I look forward to doing more coaching and mentoring, as well as continuing my consulting work outside of school. My more near-term leadership goals within my scope as Assistant Head of School are collaborating with my colleagues to re-envision our boarding program, continue the work of school-wide curriculum mapping that strengthens the horizontal and vertical alignment of the curricula, and successfully launch the School’s reaccreditation process. There’s much to do!