By Lauren Lek
What if classrooms helped provide our young girls with the skills to close the confidence gap that too often leaves our young women out of the leadership race?
As we prepare to welcome 2020, I am filled with hope and excitement about the dream of what our schools will become in the years ahead as the possibilities of learning continue to escalate to the stuff that was science fiction when I grew up. It is no longer what is possible that determines what can be learned in the classroom, but rather what can be imagined or dreamed.
Indeed, our most significant challenge in education is finding ways to promote and foster inventiveness. As difficult as it can be to leave my three precious children (ages 4, 7, and 10) each day, I am heartened by the joy I see in the smiling faces of the 750 girls I spend my days with, each of them eager for the undiscovered possibilities that lie ahead.
For most of my professional career, I was a high school teacher and administrator in co-educational schools. It wasn’t until I came to the Academy of Our Lady of Peace seven years ago that my journey of working exclusively with a single-gender population began. It was at that time that I honed my research skills specifically around how girls learn and became cognizant of the deficit in my own teaching practices around gender-specific pedagogy.
You see, in a co-educational setting, too often instructional pedagogy will skew toward strategies to help address issues of keeping our boys busy, particularly in those elementary years, when the girls raise their hands, know all the answers, are compliant and obedient.
“If life were one long grade school,” Carol Dweck, author of The Growth Mindset, explains, then women “would be the undisputed rulers of the world. But life isn’t one long grade school.”
And as our girls move toward adolescence, this crazy thing happens. The confidence gap begins to set in between elementary and high school, causing girls’ self-esteem to drop 3.5 times more than boys.
The research is alarming, showing that by adolescence 7 in 10 girls feel that they are not smart enough, not good enough, not talented enough. And only 1 in 5 girls believes she has what it takes to be a leader. Even Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook has said “there are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” The imposter syndrome is real for many women, regardless of age.
For me, the classrooms of the future are spaces intentionally designed for girls and equipped with faculty who use research-based practices to teach girls the hard and soft skills required to lead in the 21st century. Unlike in co-educational classroom, in a girls school the lessons are specifically formulated to address girls’ learning styles, and learning environments are safe places for girls to make mistakes and cultivate resilience.
Furthermore, guest speakers are brought in to introduce girls to women role models in all types of career paths, including those where women are underrepresented. The institutional culture is one in which collaboration is central—a girl takes on every role: she imagines, she designs, she builds, and she leads.
For you see, I have a dream that we will no longer need laws to create equity on the boards of publicly-traded companies because there is gender and racial parity. I have a dream that women of all different backgrounds get paid the same amount for the same job as a man. I have a dream that in our nation, men take time off at the same rate as women to care for children and family members. I have a dream that equity unites rather than divides us.
I believe that giving our young women a voice in a school of their own creates an inner strength allowing them the leadership skills to make an indelible impact upon our world.
Lauren Lek, Ed.D., is head of school at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, the oldest all-girls school in San Diego.
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