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DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION
It Took Someone Saying I Was Leadership Material
By Meadow Hilley, TIE Editor 03-Apr-19
Meadow: How did you get your start in international education?Sheena Nabholz: I grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada. My parents were first-generation Canadians; my father was from Pakistan, my mother from England. We stood out in this very non-diverse community. I remember always feeling well accepted by the community, but I was also constantly reminded that I was different. The idea of travel always appealed to me because, when you’re abroad, it’s okay to be different. International education married my passion for travel and education. I knew right away that this was my tribe, my obsession. Luckily my husband is also a teacher, so he was on board. Meadow: And you haven’t looked back since?Sheena: Not once. It’ll be 20 years this fall. Meadow: Wow, congratulations! Did you know at the outset that you would be making a life in international education?Sheena: No, in fact, when we first went overseas, I took a leave of absence from my school in Canada. At that moment, I was the K-12 district math chair and the district was grooming me for leadership. I also had opportunities to work provincially for the government of Alberta, writing and filming a 57-episode telecourse for pre-calculus. More and more opportunities like that were coming my way. So I think when we said, “Hey, we’re going to take a leave of absence and go to Egypt!” the district was like, “What?” We put all our stuff in storage, thinking this was just about scratching an itch. Meadow: Can you put your finger on what it was that appealed to you both so deeply?Sheena: I know exactly what it was. Back in Canada, working in a public school, for most people it was a job. My colleagues went to work, they went home, they logged the days until they retired. When we went overseas, we finally found educators who really wanted to talk about learning and how to improve it. Once we found that professional learning community we suddenly realized that’s what we’d been missing back in public school. Meadow: How did you make your transition to leadership?Sheena: I resisted it hard. Honestly. Like I think a lot of women do. Unless somebody really says you’re good enough to do it, you tend not to think you are. We’d been in Costa Rica about a year when Tim Carr told me about an opportunity to do a master’s degree in leadership through Framingham State College. I felt ready to take a next step but all the time was looking hard at Tim and at Kevin Glass, who was the principal, just trying to pick up any sign in their faces that they thought I was leadership material and should do this masters program. When I finally asked, point blank, they were like, “Yeah, of course you should!” And so I did, all the while sort of afraid that no one would ever… You have to sort of be tapped to be a leader. Meadow: Is that the reality or was that just your perception at the time?Sheena: That was my perception. I think the same is true for a lot of women, though, which is why the Women in Leadership summer seminar is so important. Women who have been through that program are able to tap other women, so that they can benefit from the same opportunity. It’s so important that women know someone thinks they have capacity to lead. Meadow: Looking around at the wider field of international education at this moment, can you make a general assessment of the state of women in leadership?Sheena: I’ve seen a lot of change in the last three to five years, which is great. When I first became a secondary principal, I was living in Damascus. I think there were two other women who held the secondary principal title in my entire region. As I moved on to other positions, there seemed to be few women Heads of School, or they were responsible for small schools. All the big schools in Asia were run by men. Lately, we’ve seen that start to shift, so I think we’re moving in the right direction. Meadow: Was Africa on your radar from the start?Sheena: It was originally a surprise. Both my husband and I were geographically open. We learned very early on in our international career not to go to a job fair thinking, “I want to go to Thailand!” You have to go into this adventure geographically open. For me, it was all about the school. I knew very, very clearly what kind of community I was looking for and what kind of skillset I could bring. Meadow: You have helped schools to transition from an AP to an IB curriculum. You played a key role in launching a new high school. You have overseen major construction projects. These are big shifts. What sorts of skills does managing them require?Sheena: With construction it’s mainly a question of team building. Really knowing how to empower people on team, how to build positive relationships. How to have fun with the work—because those are demanding projects and require a ton of work. So you have to really enjoy it, and enjoy spending a lot of time together. The relational piece is key; knowing when to manage tightly and when to let people run free. Meadow: What sorts of joys and challenges have you experienced in your role as head of school?Sheena: Lincoln is a place full of innovation. The educators are so excited by the possibilities that they see before them in terms of teaching and learning. We’re very much plugged in right now with what’s happening with learning around the world and the latest research. The new building that we’re finishing now is fully designed to embrace and reflect these paradigm shifts. There’s a lot of excitement about the fact that next year we’ll be in a space that will really allow our educators to teach collaboratively. Using space as a third teacher is really exciting. We are wrapping up the first phase of a major demolition-build project that will eventually leave us with a whole new campus. I took our librarian through her dedicated space in the new building yesterday and it was fun to watch her eyes pop. It’s exciting.
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