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 Rasha’s story, and that you’ll tune in for the March episode of our Gnu Stories Podcast, when Head of School Dr. Rodney Glasgow will sit down with Dr. Mónica Ruiz, Sarah Barton Thomas, and Rasha El-Haggan for a lively conversation about their leadership journeys.
Q&A with Rasha El-Haggan
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.
Rasha: I’m actually partaking in two leadership programs. The first is the AISGW Leadership Initiative which is specific to supporting women in leadership. The second one is the Friends Council on Education Institute for Engaging Leadership, which is specific to leadership in Quaker Schools. I attended the first cohort meetings for both programs earlier this fall. It was incredibly impactful to me. Earlier in my career, I was the only administrator—and head of school—at a brand new, small school that needed to be built from the ground up, where I didn’t have a leadership support system. The AISGW program is a really cool opportunity where I’m among people who can truly encourage and assist me. I’m learning that you have to have your “tribe”—colleagues who can relate to and support you through the specific challenges of leadership. This kind of tailored support is the key to sustaining positions like these…and continuing to love what you do. Through both of the leadership programs that I’m currently involved in, we are learning about the importance of having the support of people who share your experiences and how to build your support tribe. I truly feel like anyone can succeed in leadership, if given the necessary skills and support.
From these programs, I’m hearing that what I’m feeling as a leader is normal. I’m realizing that the more people you have to work with or lead, the more people management skills you need to learn—especially related to communication, like asking questions in order to find commonality—and the more you need to build confidence in making decisions. And, through FCE in particular, I’m learning the value of connecting to colleagues emotionally and spiritually. As the only current program participant of Muslim faith, it’s so interesting for me to connect with someone on a spiritual level who doesn’t share my faith. That’s happening at FCE because we can connect through similarity (all coming from Quaker schools) as well as learning about our differences. It makes me think of a verse in the Quran that translates, “Oh mankind, I created you from male and female, and made you nations and tribes, so that you may know one another.” Reflecting on similarities and differences is how we can connect emotionally and spiritually, and, to use the Quaker principle, “see that of God in everyone.” It’s how we connect as human beings.
How do you plan to bring what you’re learning through your leadership training back to SSFS?
Rasha: I want to bring the skills I’m learning—in particular, the communication skills of active listening, including asking questions—to department and division meetings. It’s my goal to model these skills, specifically as a female leader. That’s my style: to model, not tell people what to do. I try to do this throughout my relationships with others. I’m also thinking about how I can support other women who are emerging into leadership, in terms of guiding, coaching, and mentoring them.
I feel that both these opportunities and my years here at SSFS have really helped prepare me for my new position as assistant head at Friends School of Baltimore. The importance of listening to others, taking counsel, observing and reflecting, interrogating your own beliefs, and giving agency to others are all part of the Quaker philosophy and Quaker education. I feel I’m better prepared as a leader.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve encountered in your leadership journey?
Rasha: I think building a culture of belonging is really challenging. It’s one of those really delicate—yet important—intangibles that contributes to the success of student and faculty retention, joy and happiness in an organization, and of course can help propel a school forward on its strategic path. Leaders have to be open and transparent yet also protect confidentiality; vulnerable but also strong and confident; decisive, but also listen and be open to changing their minds. We have to balance all these extremes all the time, or we risk affecting the school’s culture. Of course we have some good days and some bad days, but my hope as a leader is to always try to have more good days than bad, and while there is no concrete science to building a culture of belonging, we have to keep on learning and reflecting all the time.
What attracted you to SSFS, and what do you appreciate most about serving as a leader in this community?
Rasha: Sandy Spring is my first Quaker school. When my son was in eighth grade, we were looking for a school for him. He’s a quirky child, and I wanted him to feel comfortable—to really experience a sense of belonging. I also wanted a place where I wouldn’t have to be aware of the scarf on my head. From the first time we stepped on campus for a tour, I knew this was the place for him and for me. I’d visited other Quaker schools that didn’t have that same sense of belonging, but I felt it strongly here, even though I was the only Muslim person in the faculty and staff at that time. Now, there are three additional faculty and staff members who identify as Muslim, two of whom wear the hijab—we’re all different cultures and ethnicities, but what brings us together is our faith.
I really appreciate the flexibility of those around me. I’ve seen people here take on different roles during their tenure at SSFS—and I’m one of them. I started as Academic Dean in the Upper School and after the pandemic, needed to take a step back and return to the classroom. When I was ready to take on leadership again, Rodney supported me and I was able to take on the role of Director of Curriculum & Professional Growth. This new position basically represented a combination of my previous role as Clerk of the Curriculum Committee and the Director of Professional Development role. It combines curriculum alignment across all three divisions, professional growth (Folio and evaluation/supervision, as well as mentoring and coaching), and professional development. I have the opportunity to influence many different aspects of professional development, because as faculty and staff work to grow themselves professionally through goal setting, they might need specific professional development such as an online course, a conference, or a two-day workshop to help them reach that goal, and I can support both stages of the process. I’ve been spending a lot of time defining the role and how it intersects with other roles in the school. In fact, my own Folio goal is “How might I leverage this new role in order to build a culture of collaboration and growth?” In order to do that, one must work on building trust, modeling vulnerability, and advocating for those in the trenches. These are all important understandings that I’m hoping to take with me to my new role as Assistant Head at Friends School of Baltimore.
How does your identity as a woman impact your leadership, and what other aspects of your identity inform your approach?
Rasha: I don’t see my leadership through my identity as a woman. Is that a question we would ask a male leader? But I'm not naive. While I don’t define my leadership through my gender, I know that others might. People might make certain assumptions about me or my leadership because I’m a woman. I think there are a certain set of challenges that only women face in leadership, like having different standards applied to our leadership behavior. As a woman I’ve heard things like, “I love how passionate you are,” and felt the hidden judgment in that. If I show too much excitement, I’m emotional. If I show too little, I’m cold. If I speak directly, I’m offensive. If I speak indirectly, I’m not clear, or I’m being disingenuous. Especially as I continue building a reputation in this community, I’ve learned to temper my reactions and pick my words carefully.
My identity as a Muslim also informs my leadership. As a Muslim, my tradition teaches me to be reflective, to listen to others, and to serve those around me. If people come to me with an issue or a problem, I go into a serving role. What can I do to help you do your job better? I read this somewhere: “How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you.” I am always striving to make people feel good about themselves. That’s easier said than done, especially if you’re providing feedback and criticism. And while I know I’ve failed a few times on that account, I am constantly reflecting on how to do better.
How have you surprised yourself as a leader?
Rasha: I’m actually a mega-introverted person. This might be surprising, even to those who know me well. But my comfort zone is being alone or in a small group. Being in a large group or going to school-wide events is something I dread; I’ve had to learn how to just go up to someone and talk to them. I’m still working on that skill.
I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m willing to show my vulnerability to others. I know I probably do that more in my profession than I do at home. Vulnerability is worth the discomfort it sometimes causes; when you show vulnerability, it makes you more human and gives others permission to do the same.
What’s one practical leadership tip you can share with us?
Rasha: Often, we’re told that the longer you’re a leader, the more you’ll build and grow “thick skin” that will help you cope with the challenges of leadership. A wise person, who happens to be a female head of school, once told me that there is no such thing as growing thick skin. What we need to do as leaders is to create a toolbox of coping strategies. Having a group that supports you is one strategy. Another strategy is to build in breaks. As leaders, we have to be “on” all the time (and I really do mean all the time). It’s okay to identify some boundaries and take the time to turn off your phone notifications. Learn to ward off that guilty feeling that comes from not checking your email multiple times a day on a weekend or during a break. It's these types of strategies that will help leaders to avoid burnout.
What’s your next right thing in leadership?
Rasha:I still have a few months left in my position here at SSFS. Knowing that I’m not returning next year, I feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that those who will be picking up the baton after me are equipped with the knowledge to continue the work after I leave. I want to make sure they are all set up for success so they can hit the ground running next year. I’m meeting weekly with Mónica [Assistant Head of School Dr. Mónica Ruiz], department heads, Patti [Learning Specialist Patti Lemere-Pates], and others to start transitioning the work I’ve been doing. It’s actually been an interesting exercise in reflection. I am deeply hopeful that I can continue to be a thought partner even as I take on a new role in a new school.
I will forever be grateful to the SSFS community and to all those who willingly held up a mirror to me, allowing me to reflect on who I am as a leader: warts, dimples, and everything in between.