Women in top school jobs organize to encourage each other

Behind every successful woman administrator at an American public school, is there a man cheering? Another woman cheering? For Isa Zimmerman, the assistant superintendent of schools in Lexington, Mass., the answer is yes. The man cheering is her husband, a professional, who was willing to uproot to a new community when she was appointed to her position. But for many women administrators, the cheers just aren't to be heard.

''It's lonely at the top,'' says Gretel Clark, who supervises bilingual education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Lonely, that is, for the fortunate few women who get the top-rung jobs in education. Of the nation's approximately 16,000 school district superintendents, only 1 percent are women. If you consider principalships and assistants' jobs, the proportion rises to 13 percent, which is still drastically low for a field in which, overall, women dominate by 2 to 1.

These percentages represent just one of the problems Isa Zimmerman, Gretel Clark, and nearly 50 other women administrators gathered to discuss here at Endicott House, a former private estate which is now a conference center run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Behind the stately chateau, a long greensward slopes down to a rim of trees, which, on this autumn afternoon, are wearing gaudy colors. Not so the women who have gathered here; they've learned the conformity of dress (conservative suits, no polyester) and coiffure (short, casual, but not masculine) imposed by their career choice.

Sitting on a terrace and talking with this reporter, Rosa Marazzi, part-time executive director of the Northeast Coalition of Educational Leaders (NECEL), notes that a major obstacle for women who aspire to an administrative position is the initial decision to go for it. ''Many women who went into teaching never analyzed their talents,'' she comments. ''Most women still have to become aware of administration as a career. Classroom skills are not seen as qualifying women to hold administrative positions. So there aren't in-service programs to help women teachers become principals, for example.''

Other obstacles, she says, are lack of mobility (often a change of locations is out of the question for married women because of their husbands' careers), public resistance to female leadership, and the reluctance of some women to risk alienating peers by assuming a supervisory role over them.

''You really have to change fields, and you don't necessarily get any peer support for doing that,'' Ms. Marazzi continues. ''The ability to discipline is important for a principal - you have to deal with problems like drugs and sex. But I don't think you have to have had military experience, which is one of the things men often list on their resumes. . . . You have to be an assertive kind of woman.'' But women can ''learn that from role models and in courses.''

NECEL, which has affiliates in nine states, is one of six regional organizations devoted to helping women educators advance in the field of administration. NECEL was formed in 1975. Ms. Marazzi says the organization sprouted from a seminar held at Boston's Simmons College. ''The participants continued to meet informally after the seminar ended and eventually received a Ford Foundation grant to permit them to organize more formally,'' she says.

The Massachusetts branch, which is sponsoring the Endicott House conference, is typical of the state affiliates in that it publishes a newsletter, sponsors workshops and lectures, provides a job vacancy grapevine for members, and serves as a ''cheering section'' for those who receive administrative appointments.

One of the topics being discussed at the Oct. 14 conference here is overcoming stagnation on the job. Robert C. Kegan, a member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, credits psychologists with the discovery that ''there is life after adolescence. We really can grow - not just put on weight,'' he says. ''In a healthy school, as in a healthy family, everyone is getting a chance to grow. A family has to reconstitute itself continually to adapt to the different stages of growth of its members. This is true in a school as well.''

One example of the kind of room to grow Mr. Kegan is talking about is seen in Mrs. Zimmerman's career. ''What I liked about being a principal changed over the years,'' she says, ''as the school changed and as I changed. But basically it was the variety, the constant shifting of gears, each day a surprise. It was also very stressful. The hardest part was doing things other people didn't like - firing somebody, changing a schedule. But that's not because I'm a woman. Those problems are just as hard for men principals.''

The administrators here are also discussing such topics as education and management, sources of support, institutional finance, and methods for firing an incompetent teacher.

Laura Cooper, a doctoral candidate in education at Harvard, who led one of the sessions, says some of the challenges facing school administrators today include a decline in enrollment, lagging SAT scores, shortages of funds, a decline in public confidence, and even a tendency for society not to value its children. Administrators must also help close the technology gap between schools and the world of work, she notes.

''We have a changing student population and an aging and not-so-changing faculty and staff,'' she says. ''The students are increasingly nonwhite; the faculties are largely white and middle class. This creates tension between who comes to school, who teaches, and who pays the bills.''

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