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 SBT’s story, as well as the other two in this series focused on women in leadership at SSFS: Dr. Mónica Ruiz and Rasha El-Haggan.
Q&A with Sarah Barton Thomas
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.
SBT: Through AISGW’s program, I’m being affirmed in a lot of things I already knew, which helps maintain my confidence in what I’m doing. It’s been really interesting to hear from others in my cohort who have followed different leadership paths from mine (often ones that are more linear!), and one thing that stands out is that each of the cohort leaders (predominantly female heads of school) were clearly championed by someone during their career. That process is important to me, and I’m thinking about how I’m championing not just the women, but all the folks around me—to reach their next step. I feel quite grateful that I’ve never experienced my gender as a barrier to getting a leadership role or as the source of specific challenges within a leadership role. Some of that might be generational, and some of that might be the fact that I was raised by a super strong woman who had a career my whole life. But I know that being a woman has been a barrier or impediment for many others, so I want to make sure I’m aware of those systems and how I’m either contributing to them or breaking them down.
Part of that involves asking who we haven’t heard from in making a decision—at a Quaker school like ours, capturing each person’s voice is inspired by the principle of valuing each person and their inner voice. I’m an introvert, so I know we have to think about the tools and practices we’re using to be able to glean everyone’s voice rather than defaulting to an open format where some people’s perspectives are less likely to be shared. I’m also being reminded that leadership can be lonely. You aren’t going to make everyone happy, and if you are making everyone happy, you probably aren’t moving an initiative forward well. Especially in a Quaker context—with our focus on consensus—this can sometimes be confusing. As a competent leader, sometimes you have to say “no,” or sometimes you have to say “wait.”
How do you plan to bring what you’re learning through your leadership training back to SSFS?
SBT: This is both an exciting and important time to be a clear and consistent voice and advocate for the Lower School. I know I want to bring the leadership lessons I’m learning back to our division heads group and Admin Council, to be a catalyst for dialogue and even better decision making.
Also, I’m recognizing the value of being able to provide non-titled leadership opportunities, both for people who are actively seeking them (people like me, who are always asking, ”What can I do next?”), and also for those who show promise and need to be championed. We have a lot of untapped, up-and-coming leaders in the Lower School faculty. Even for those who are content with teaching and not looking for a formal leadership role, if they have a powerful influence and voice, I want to help champion them to lead informally. My experience in AISGW Leadership Initiative is offering me affirmations and tools that enable me to look forward as a leader and to think with vision, rather than continue to operate within the Covid climate of reactivity. I’m grateful that I’ll bring these tools with me as I move to Trinity Episcopal School this summer.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve encountered in your leadership journey?
SBT: I don’t think I’ve been affected by the typical challenges of women leaders, maybe because I’m very confident in my identity—and not to say those who experience misogyny are not, but I grew up in ’80s and ’90s, raised by the first generation of women after Title IX, when girls were told we could do anything. I’ve also worked with some really great people who don’t see my gender as a barrier to performance or success. I’m fortunate to be leading in a time when traditional headship is falling away, and more women and people of color are serving in these roles. I’m lucky that I have a lot of people at schools across the country that will take my call when I have questions and offer support—and I always hope I can do that for others.
The biggest challenge for me? Time, time, time. We are a big institution and there are so many priorities—how do I use time equitably to meet all of them? There’s going to be an imbalance. In fact, I no longer look for “work-life balance,” but I try to manage the imbalance. And in light of that, I try to be clear and up front when I’m asking people for their time.
What attracted you to SSFS, and what do you appreciate most about serving as a leader in this community?
SBT: I grew up in Columbia, MD, but I was away from the area for the six years prior to coming to SSFS. Even though I felt pretty connected nationally, coming here was a good opportunity to build back a local peer group. Also, I wanted to work for a head of color and be in a space where senior leadership (Admin Council) included more diverse identities. This is the space I want to be in.
I’m a cradle Episcopalian—in fact, I've recently been accepted to a doctoral program at Virginia Theological Seminary—and our baptismal covenant talks about seeing the dignity in every human being and striving for justice and peace. That’s where the Quaker connection hits home for me: seeing that of God in everyone—even in a disagreement, even in hard times, we have to honor one another’s humanity. So, my faith has been a primary driver for me wanting to be at a place like SSFS. I love any time I can be with the students, and I specifically love being there for Meeting for Worship. I’ll hear our Lower School students share something relevant, and I love being surprised at what they’ll speak into the space. Meeting for Worship is a deeply sacred time, not just for what is shared, but also for the silence at the beginning and end. As I move on to Trinity Episcopal School at the end of this school year, one key takeaway I’ll bring with me is the value of silence. Another takeaway is the value of faculty members taking risks and confidently trying new things—that’s a huge deal for me: I’ve loved seeing the deep love that Sandy Spring Friends faculty have for what they do and who they teach.
How does your identity as a woman impact your leadership, and what other aspects of your identity inform your approach?
SBT: I was widowed 8 years ago; that’s a huge part of who I am—in addition to my Episcopal identity—that helps me really see people going through grief times (the loss of a spouse, God forbid the loss of a child, or a parent). Understanding that change and loss go hand in hand, I’m mindful of the push and pull of moving onward in the face of loss. I sign my written messages either with “be well” or “onward” because those are two things that speak to what matters to me. Onward: let us go forward, not forgetting what happened or pretending that hard things didn’t occur, but striving for what comes next. Being on this grief walk has deeply influenced the way I move forward.
How have you surprised yourself as a leader?
SBT: I’ve been surprised by the way that I can be resilient. I think any school leader (really any school person, but I’ll speak to leaders specifically) found that in the first 6 months to 2 years of the pandemic, it wasn’t a space where you were making anyone happy. So, the fact that I am coming out of that resilient and still committed to the work has been pleasantly surprising—you struggle through it, hold on to your team…and then you take a nap, and eat some broccoli, and keep going [more on the broccoli recommendation in the practical tip section].
What’s one practical leadership tip you can share with us?
SBT: Engage in self care. I take going to bed early and getting up early very seriously. I hold my morning Bible study routine as non-negotiable to ground myself for the day. Leaders multitask all day long—we’re constantly switching hats. Even if we do that very comfortably, it creates a strong need to recharge. Sleep is just one part of that, though—if I’m tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, I know I need to go for a walk or a run, take a little nap (if it's a weekend—that’s a little tough to do during the school day), and eat some broccoli. Broccoli is my favorite vegetable—I even have a broccoli-patterned dress—people know this about me. My mom will often ask, have you eaten any broccoli today?
What’s your next right thing in leadership?
SBT: As we (the collective “we” who work in education) emerge from the pandemic, we simply must evaluate the what, why, and how of our practices, policies, and traditions to ensure we are serving our students and community in a missionally-aligned way. Considering who we are now and where we want to go is essential. (I think SSFS’ Strategic Plan will be highly informative in this way, but I admit my bias as a member of the committee.)
In the days ahead, before I depart for the next stage of my leadership journey at Trinity Episcopal, my next right thing is to support teachers' desired growing edges. Whether it is saying yes to a creative, curricularly-aligned project or yes to professional development, I love supporting and facilitating professional growth in service of our teachers and students.