In 2008, I started my leadership journey when I was named the Education Director for the largest correctional institution in another state. The person who named me was the most senior warden in the system and by far, the most respected. When I showed up for my interview, I was surprised that the warden was a woman. I had the myopic perception that a person in charge of a correctional institution could only be a man. Once I met the warden, my views were permanently amended and so was my professional trajectory. Growing up I was fortunate to be around some incredible women, my mother being the first. But to see a woman command a space that years earlier was hostile to her presence with such aplomb was inspiring. Even though I am sure that there were those who did not want her to be in charge, she was undaunted and one of the best leaders I have worked for. She possessed a fierceness and focus that I wanted to emulate and to this date, I still ask myself how she would react in certain situations. Her leadership continues to have the greatest impact on me and my practice.
As I reflect on my career, I have been positively impacted by strong women all along my journey. Women who helped me to grow and to develop both as a leader and as a person. Women who promoted me and inspired me to perform at levels that I did not think I could achieve. When I think of the history of women in this nation, I fully appreciate that the women who influenced and shaped me were merely part of a long line of powerful and dynamic women. Today I am still being influenced and impacted by outstanding leaders who happen to also be women. I have invited three of them to join me this month to share part of their journey and to reflect on why Women’s History Month is important and how it has impacted them. Please welcome Dr. Tonya Thompson – Principal at Rouse High School, Chrysta Carlin, Ed.D. – Assistant Superintendent of Pathways and Innovation, and Melody Maples, JD – Principal at Stiles Middle School. Each of these women is unique, but share a common impact on our system – they challenge us to be better and more responsive to the needs of ALL students. Women throughout history have always done this for our nation and for the world.
Tell us a little about who you are, what you do in LISD, and how long you have been with the district?
I joined the LISD family 6 years ago serving the incredible Stiles Middle School community as campus principal. My husband and I moved to Leander 14 years ago and we are the parents of a current LISD student. Both of our families live in the LISD community. 22 years ago, the law firm I worked for gave me the opportunity to volunteer in a special education classroom for students with intellectual disabilities for two weeks. One month later, I enrolled in night classes to earn my teaching certificate. I’ve been blessed to have worked in public education for 21 years, starting as a teacher and track coach in Wisconsin.
I currently serve the district as the Assistant Superintendent of Pathways and Innovation. I work with a wonderful team who helps support students in their various pathways throughout their educational career in Leander ISD. In addition, I oversee our schools of choice in Leander ISD which include New Hope High School, Early College High School, and the Virtual Learning Academy. I also support campuses with their deeper learning initiatives. I’ve been with the school district for seven years, previously serving as the Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum.
I am honored to serve as the Rouse High School Principal and the only woman to currently lead a comprehensive high school in Leander ISD. I am, however, not the only woman to serve in this role at RHS as Principals Nancy Scott and Christine Simpson paved the way before me and I am grateful to them both. I have had the privilege of learning from and growing alongside many courageous women.
When you think back over your life and career, have there been women that you have admired and wanted to emulate? If so, who and why? What qualities did they possess?
When I think about women I admire, Ruth Bader Ginsburg rises to the top. Her courage to be one of the few women in a male-dominated profession is notable in itself and coupled with her passion for women’s rights and gender equality, she was a force. I keep a quote of hers on my phone, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” This statement resonates so much with me especially in the work of public education. Working to continuously improve our public schools for each and every student is not something that can be done in isolation, it must be done with other individuals. Everyday as leaders we have a responsibility to choose actions that bring people along in the work.
I am also blessed to come from a family of strong women, from my grandmothers to my tias (aunts), and my own mom and sister. The women in my family have always inspired me through their faith, strength, and love. They have shown me how we as women can and should build up each other. They taught me the importance of hard work, fun, and laughter. I would not be the woman and leader I am today if it were not for the encouragement and love of the Muniz and Carlin women.
Most recently, I find myself admiring a well-known author and inspiration to many, Brené Brown. What I admire most about Brene Brown is her candid honesty and transparency about the value and impact of owning your whole story. She recently did a podcast about the power of struggle and weakness. In the podcast, she talks a lot about strength coming from vulnerability and knowing yourself. She said “The best parts of us and the parts we’re trying to change often live on the same continuum. Rather than throwing out the entire continuum, it’s about sliding toward our strengths and using them to change what we want to change.”
Growing up, I had a childhood friend named Sarah, who, due to a rare disease, never got the chance to get a driver’s license. Her friendship was invaluable and I admired her radiating joy that lifted up everyone in the room. Her life may have been short, but she serves as a reminder that focusing on the great things that bring you happiness, especially on the hardest of days takes intention and can have incredible impact on others. I have always admired my mom who taught me how to embrace change. I remember growing up there was a quote that was stuck to the refrigerator that read “it’s not the change that hurts, it’s fighting the change that hurts.” I would watch her live this out every day. And I remember seeing her on occasion go back to the fridge to just stare at this quote. And at every stage of life when things were changing for me, she always made a point of referencing that quote. I admired her ability to let change excite her instead of letting it scare her. Truth is the woman I have admired the most throughout my life and career is my identical twin sister, Monica Horvat. Monica has been a part of my life and career journey and has served as my biggest fan when I needed her the most, even when things were challenging for her. Her humility, GRIT and ability to always see the best in people has always inspired me. I have never seen her let herself give in to fear or doubt.
Throughout my life and career, I have been mentored, guided, supported and encouraged by so many inspiring women. Though the list may be long, too long to name specifically, the qualities that I admire in each of these women that I try to emulate and remind myself of include tenacity, empathy, passion, and GRIT. But most importantly, each of these women have taught me the importance of lifting and celebrating one another’s greatness.
The most impactful woman in my life is my mother as she has instilled in me the importance of giving grace to others, living my life with integrity, and understanding that I am on this earth to serve the greater good. She was a nurse for over 40 years and I learned from her that every day we should seek to help and show compassion to others. I feel like this played a huge role in why I wanted to be an educator.
Why do you think it is important to observe Women’s History Month? What lessons can we all learn from the contributions of women to our nation and to the world?
Some would say that if we don’t learn from our history we are condemned to repeat it. But, I believe that history affords us the ability to be inspired by the stories, the journey, the challenges, triumphs and defeats. It affords us the opportunity to honor and celebrate the sum total of all those things. The most valuable lessons come from the inspiration of those unseen and unnamed women in history. The ones that paved the way. The ones that reminded the history makers of their purpose. The most important lesson we learn from all of them is the incredible opportunity we have today to lift up the next generation of history-makers.
The Women’s History Month theme for 2023 is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories”. The author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer Maya Angelou exemplifies this theme. This amazing woman also positively impacted me as I read and internalized many of the lessons in her works in my early years of womanhood. I believed her to be resilient and adaptable in the face of adversity while also being an empathic advocate for all of humankind.
So many women, of different backgrounds and ages, have made positive contributions to our society. They deserve to be honored and recognized on a daily basis and especially during Women’s History Month. Highlighting women leaders is important because our young girls deserve and need to see women who have broken barriers, serve as leaders, and contribute in many ways to our world. By showcasing women leaders we are showing the younger generation of girls, what could be.
If you could go back in time and speak to yourself when you first started your career, what advice would you give yourself as it relates to being a woman in the workplace?
Be unapologetically genuine about who you are. Own your struggles and your stories like medals of honor. Stop focusing on your weaknesses or failures, they will only serve as distractions from knowing your strengths and realizing your potential and knowing your value. And finally, never forget that the most impactful moments in your life will not be the grandest and are usually the ones that you wish you could do over.
There is no balance, sometimes you lean more to your career and others more to your family. The key is to not always lean in the same direction. As a young teacher and a mom I leaned too much towards the career and did not spend enough time with my son. I wish someone told me it was okay to take time for me and my family. I feel women struggle more with work and family balance because more is expected of us in both areas. We might never find true balance but know it is okay to lean in the area that needs you.
Women’s History Month is important so that all members of society can understand the contributions women have made in the past and present. The observance of women’s achievements allows others to reflect on how they too may create opportunities to break down barriers, uplift others and positively affect change.
As we observe Women’s History Month – 2023, it is easy to see that this generation of women leaders is well represented in LISD. We are fortunate to have so many impactful and inspiring leaders in our midst. These three women are emblematic of the leadership prowess that distinguishes LISD. I am proud to know and work with each of them and all of the other phenomenal women who are leading in LISD.
Leander ISD Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion DeWayne Street contributed to this article. For more information on the district’s DEI initiatives, please visit www.leanderisd.org/equitydiversityinclusion.