Women In Business Q&A: Dr. Priscilla Sands

Dr. Priscilla Sands

Dr. Priscilla Sands began her independent school career teaching drama and English at her alma mater, the Agnes Irwin School in Philadelphia. She later oversaw the school's community service program before becoming Director of Admissions and Financial Aid. In 1993 she was named Assistant Head of School, and in 1996 was appointed Head of School at Springside School in Philadelphia. In 2011, when Springside merged with its brother school, Chestnut Hill Academy, the new Board appointed her President of the combined institution, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

At SCH, Dr. Sands established the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, a program focused on helping students build the skills and mindset required for success in the 21st century. She has long been a champion of design thinking and project-based learning, and is currently working on the creation of a Mindfulness Program based on the work of Dr. Martin Seligman.

In 2015, Dr. Sands was named head of Marlborough School in Los Angeles, CA. She brings her longstanding relationship with girls schools to this new position, as well as her husband, John Berg who is already a mainstay at Marlborough events.

Dr. Sands has a number of professional affiliations, and has served as Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools and President of the Headmistresses Association of the East. She has also served as a trustee for several schools, including the Haverford School, and Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School.

Dr. Sands earned a B.F.A. in theatre from the University of Rhode Island. She went on to earn a Master's in Liberal Studies from Villanova and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have not taken a traditional route to becoming a head of school. Having been a theatre major in college, I spent my early working years seeking out jobs that appealed to my sense of adventure and passion for creating art. For example, I was the Executive Director of the Fort Bragg Theatre, and while there, I produced Death of a Salesman for GI's. I saw the power of language and story and how it impacted the lives of young men, many of whom had little exposure to literature or theatre, but all of whom understood the complexities of father/son relationships. I saw battle-hardened soldiers weeping as they walked out of the matinee. Effective leaders, especially those whose work impacts the lives of children, must be able to understand and share in others' feelings. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my early work in theater taught me how to do just that.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Marlborough?
I am in the unique position of having been a graduate of a girls' school as well as having been a head of school for two girls' schools on either coast of this amazing country. I am astounded by the similarities and universality of the worlds of girls, as well as the shared sense of pride and overarching sense of sisterhood that alumnae share about their schools. Our alma maters are the places where lifelong friends are made. Having recently celebrated a milestone reunion at my own alma mater, I was overcome by the overwhelming affection I had for women who have known me for most of my life and, while we have taken different paths, with whom I still share an incredible bond.

I also know that my role from one coast to another is to remain a storyteller, one who navigates being a woman, a wife, a mother, and an educator. I am a reader and sharer, and while I am passing through each school, I want to leave a part of my heart, my love, and my affirmation behind, because we have a truly sacred duty to care for the children who are tendered to our care. The lens of joy is the most powerful pathway for us to educate and to help our girls understand that they will fail hard sometimes, and while not always gracefully, they will be surrounded by a village of people who care deeply for each of them.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Marlborough?
The highlight has been getting to know this incredible group of young women. Coming from another school and another coast, I had no idea what to expect, but they are not only hard working and industrious, they are also young people committed to helping others while moving our community conversation toward issues of inclusivity and awareness.

The ongoing challenge for me is staying nimble and being present in a world of young people. I have to be able to pivot quickly and to understand how they think and what they hope and dream for. Despite what we hear or read about young people, I find my students to be incredibly hopeful. I love the optimism in the lives of our students in the face of unrest and uncertainty around the world. I learn about them by walking the halls, cautiously trespassing in their world, and listening to what gives them joy, what causes stress, and what makes them laugh, all while sitting hard on my fixing impulses. I think the older I get, the better listener I become, and my antidote to aging is active listening...and spending my days around young people.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
My job is one that provides me with enormous fulfillment, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I love. I would be thrilled to see more women seek out similar opportunities and pursue school leadership roles. Currently, only around 30% of heads of school are women, even though the education field is predominantly female.

My advice for women who are interested in a leadership position in a school is to see the role not just as an educator, but also as a mayor. In the small towns of schools, the mayor not only oversees the course of study for students, guides the professional development of employees, and serves as a representative for the town, but she also must deal with zoning, trash pickup, security, and safety.

As a mayor and as a school leader, you are constantly changing course and bringing people together to think about the future of education and how we are supporting girls to think of themselves as leaders. I am a big fan of Amy Cuddy and I constantly strive to unleash the Wonder Woman in each of them.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Education is actually a world of incredible twists and turns. There is an unspoken expectation for women leaders to lead with dignity and grace and to have an understated sense of confidence. The problem is, education is evolving and messy. To truly succeed you must surround yourself with a great team - members who are willing to dream, to say "what if", to imagine, push back, challenge, and laugh. Trying and failing is the best modeling we can do for students. Perfection is not an expectation because that goal never, ever moves the needle. Being dynamic, ready to try, and always moving forward keeps schools and villages happy and thriving, and this takes boundless energy, commitment, and dedication. I am at peace that this is a job that is ever changing and it is emotionally consuming.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a much better answer to this question having moved to Los Angeles a year ago. It was finally my opportunity to add more sunlight, exercise, good food, and healthy living into my life. I had no idea how happy the sun would make me, and every day I breathe in the incredible joy of living in a place where people are authentically happy. We have been to numerous cultural events, met many interesting people, and engaged in lengthy conversations about art, music, and literature over this past year, which has sustained and nourished us beyond working at a school that is truly special.

I also have a great work/life balance because the parents of my students respect and appreciate the importance of my life outside of school. Breaking that invisible tether of my email at night has been the greatest gift that this community has given me. Last year, I had a dad apologize for a long email, but embedded in the apology, he also told me how long it would take me to read it. How funny is that? This is a community that is appreciative of the profession of educators.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
One of the reasons I am able to do what I love, and to have made this move across the country, is because I have a partner who is exactly that...a partner. My husband is so much more qualified to run our house and our lives, and yet people tend to regard it as either terribly sweet or oddly quirky. That reaction demeans us both and it demeans women who run homes. It's hard work and I am grateful that he sees the art and beauty in our well-run household. After working for over 40 years without a break, my husband retired when we moved to LA and he has found fulfillment in supporting Marlborough. The other day one of our grandchildren asked if I was still working and if his grandfather was still "overtired." I loved that he used this word; in fact, his grandfather has discovered the Fountain of Youth.

I have also found that there are expectations for women to be nurturing and collaborative and the truth is, I don't believe these are gender specific traits. If all communities were led by women and men who value the traits of nurture and care, it is likely that the workplace would be more fulfilling for everyone.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mother was always my greatest mentor. When I was a teen, she was starting her career in educational administration. Back in the 1960s, she was asked in an interview if she could manage the job with seven children, and how she would balance her personal responsibilities with the duties of the position. She was asked more intrusive questions about her private life than about her qualifications, and of that she was always resentful. She was tough and no one was more surprised than she when I followed in her footsteps, yet when I became a head of school, she became my confidante, mentor, and closest advisor. She understood my day and my challenges better than anyone. I still catch myself wanting to call her. I miss her every day.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I am totally besotted by Gloria Steinem, whom I have met a few times. She became the voice for my nascent feminism back in the 60s and she has been true to herself and her cause every day of her life. I am in awe.

I also adore Nora Ephron. Her feminism took a different route and I love that for all of her many accomplishments, she broke through the gender barrier of long form journalism. She was tough, had pointy elbows, and yet never joined the boys club and never lost her feminist point of view or her sense of humor. Her brilliance on so many levels looms large for me.

I also admire Michelle Obama because she has brought such dignity to her role and has risen above such ugly racism. As the head of a girls' school, I will never forget the image she shared of waking up in a house built by slaves and watching her beautiful black daughters playing on the lawn of the White House. It's not about the politics for me as much as the imagery of what is most right about this country.

What do you want Marlborough to accomplish in the next year?
I hope for Marlborough to continue growing into being a place of joyful inquiry. I am intrigued by the beauty of the well thought question, the wonder of, "What if?" or "Is this possible?" I hope we continue to break down educational silos and to support the many thought leaders who come together to create content for authentic learning. I am also hopeful that the Marlborough community can come together to share with openness and generosity of spirit our stories and our collective narrative, which will allow for a real sense of value for all. Marlborough should be a microcosm of the rich diversity of this amazing city and I want us all to gain an even deeper and greater appreciation for the gift and responsibility of living here.