Heads of School Wear Hidden Superhero Capes

My teenage son often asks me in the way that only teenagers can, “What do you do all day?” I try to summarize, but so often it seems like I’m in meeting after meeting. He looks at me with pity for having such a boring job. He doesn’t know that my job sometimes makes me feel like a superhero.

I often hear from teachers or other staff that they would hate to do my job. I get it. I’m the one who speaks with irate parents or who must explain why a pay raise isn’t as high as we’d like it to be. I’m the one who takes the blame if something goes wrong. I have to. It can be overwhelming and often frustrating, but I also have the privilege of position, and there are so many times when a decision I make substantially improves life for someone in my community.

Take a couple weeks ago, for example. I can’t say I didn’t cry, but I also secretly felt that my superhero cape was lifting me and my community. Our first grade teaching apprentice, Mx. Smith, came to speak with me about transitioning from female to nonbinary over the course of this year. Gradually Mx. Smith will look more masculine and will use the pronoun “they” instead of “she.” First graders will naturally be curious about this transformation, but the teaching team would have opportunities to weave in discussions about this change into the identity unit. It was the parents that concerned Mx. Smith. As Mx. Smith sat on my couch, vulnerable yet strong, I felt excited that my position could make this easier for someone. I would write to parents, explain the situation in as much detail as was appropriate, share resources, and keep my door open if they had questions or concerns. I could shield Mx. Smith from the discomfort of having to justify their identity. My first graders will grow up to see transgender as just another great way to be in the world. I had the power to do a tiny bit of good.

Later that week, Tina, a school employee, came to my office with one of our bilingual teachers, Sara, to talk with me. With the help of Sara, Tina explained to me that after 20 years working under Temporary Resident status and 12 of those years working at my school, she was in jeopardy of losing her ability to work and live in the United States. She needed my help. I won’t get into her personal details here but suffice it to say that Tina and Sara left my office with hope. When Sara came back with tears in her eyes to thank me, I felt a strange mix of pride and sadness. Pride that I could help and sadness that someone so deserving should have to feel gratitude toward me. I felt that I didn’t deserve her gratitude for simply doing what was right, but I felt happy to be able to do it.

On another day, I sat at a student lunch table. Usually, we chat about unicorns, Harry Potter, or we tell each other riddles. Today, I sat by Spencer, a blonde transgender girl who came to us stealth, meaning kids and teachers did not know she was transgender; and Jenna, an African American girl. Jenna had just gotten her hair straightened, and you could see that she was feeling beautiful. Jenna is beautiful all the time, with curly hair, straight hair, or anything else. But this was new and fun for her. I sat and watched Spencer admire Jenna’s hair. Then, before I could stop her, Spencer reached out and stroked Jenna’s ponytail. Jenna leaned away with an annoyed look but said nothing. “Spencer, did you ask Jenna if you could touch her hair?” I asked.

“Jenna can I touch your hair?” Spencer asked, and Jenna declined.

But I blew it! And I knew it. It shouldn’t have been about whether Jenna wanted her hair touched. It wasn’t Jenna’s responsibility to deal with that. It was my responsibility to teach Spencer that we don’t touch others unless invited.

As I sat there thinking about how to fix my mistake, I overheard other students discussing how hard it would be to call their art teacher “Ms. Gomez” when last year in the after-school program they called her by her first name, Christine.

“It’s so weird to call her Ms. Gomez,” one student complained.

“I know it’s different,” I agreed, “but since we want to show her the respect she deserves, it’s up to us to call her by the name she asks us to be called, don’t you think?” They all seemed to agree. “It’s like how Mx. Smith has new pronouns, so we use ‘they’ and ‘them’ now.”

And then it happened: Spencer in her overeager way knelt on her chair and leaned so that we were face to face and declared, “I’m a ‘they,’ too!”

“You are?” asked a boy at our table.

“Yeah,” they replied.

“Oh. I think we get chocolate chip cookies for dessert,” he replied matter-of-fact. This is a boy who likes to be the one who knows things and knowing what would be for dessert is way more important than knowing if one of his classmates is transgender. In that moment, I felt the wind beneath my superhero cape. My little school might help this young child to defy the odds for transgender youth and grow up proud of all that they are.

As I left the cafeteria, I found Jenna to say that no one should touch her hair unless she invites them to do so, and that it is OK to tell them not to. She said, “I know.” I hope she does.

Every day, I come to school with a full agenda. I arrive early to wander the halls and enjoy the calm before the chaos. I look at my list of classes to visit and realize I’m always behind. I cringe when I open my email, wondering what irate person needs to meet with me. Every day, something unexpected happens. More often than not, I feel like a superhero, not because I am, but because my job allows me to be that for others. I’ll falter. I’ll need to self-correct. And I’ll keep learning and feeling grateful to be able to make life a little better for others.

Click here for legal tips from NAIS on how to protect and support your school’s LBGTQ community.
Jessica Donovan
Jessica Donovan

Jessica Donovan is head of Sheridan School in Washington, DC.


Ted Graf
10/9/2019 7:05:42 PM
I so enjoyed this piece and needed it today after one of our students told me my job sounded so boring. Your article helped me see the "little" interactions I get to have with kids, teachers, and parents each day. After reading it, I see them more clearly, and recognize the hidden impact they might have. Many thanks.

Archie Douglas
10/9/2019 4:13:50 PM
I served 15 years as HOS and lost count of the number of times I said,"I blew it!" But you keep showing up; the work matters. Now I'm back to my first love, college counseling, and am so much better at it, having been informed by my years as HOS. Thanks for sharing the ups-and downs, and for the perspective.

10/9/2019 1:58:11 PM
Always a strong ally! Thanks, Jessica!

Matt Neely
10/9/2019 10:09:32 AM
What a wonderful, heartfelt piece. Our capes get pulled, wrinkled, dirty, and ripped. But it's a great and important job. Thanks for the reminder!

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