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March 24, 2023
ASCD Blog

Women’s History Month Q&A: Sara Johnson on Impactful Leadership

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Effective leaders recognize the impact that each individual’s actions can make.
Leadership
Women’s History Month Q&A: Sara Johnson on Equity and Inspirations Header
Sara Johnson, superintendent of the Crook County School District, was named 2023 Oregon Superintendent of the Year. An educator, administrator, and native Oregonian, Johnson’s objective is to create an environment where students can thrive and feel connected. Her collaborative leadership has contributed to increased graduation rates for Crook County schools.

Why do you think it is important to celebrate Women’s History Month?

It’s important to celebrate women and to celebrate them intentionally because women play a special and important role in our culture, and their role can impact the way our world operates.
Women can bring a gift to leadership roles. They are often naturally intuitive, fearless, powerful, and influential without crushing others. When we incorporate the strengths and gifts that women possess, it makes our world a better place. I believe these strengths can and should be reflected in leadership, and by celebrating women, we highlight their influence in these areas.

How do you think women's history has been represented in popular culture? Do you have a book, movie, or other source of inspiration you would like to share?

It’s a difficult question to answer. I think there is a lot of confusion about women’s roles across our culture, but I think women’s roles are something deserving of respect. I think there have traditionally been very hard-set ideas about what women can do compared to men when, in reality, women can accomplish everything that men can accomplish.
In popular culture, we argue about many things, including women’s impact on the culture. I think these arguments harm women and society because the more you can embrace the role that each person plays, the better your culture will be. You know, we get divided around politics, beliefs, and priorities. But, in our culture, we could do a lot of good for everyone by coming together and collaborating.
When thinking about popular culture, there are a couple of books and authors that have been impactful to me. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is as much a book about women as it is about overcoming adversity. Authors Brené Brown and Sheryl Sandberg have published some incredible work and helped women embrace empathy and diverse roles.
There are also amazing educators who have written books on how to put together systems and responsive interventions for kids. One book that has impacted my work greatly is Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do by Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan. In their book, they lay out a road map for educators on how to work with students as individuals. There is power in putting a face and name to each student so we can identify their unique needs, build a relationship with them, and help them achieve their goals. This book has been useful in guiding my leadership as well as developing the systems that I have used throughout my career.

Do you have a favorite leadership quote, statement, or motto you’d like to share? 

"You can’t lift a thousand pounds all at once. Yet you can easily lift one pound one thousand times," say Marc and Angel Chernoff.
Never underestimate the power of small actions and how they accumulate to create something great. Everyone should bring their smallest actions to education and leadership. It's the power of small things day after day, moment after moment, even minute by minute, that accumulate into impactful leadership.

What is one tip you’d like to share with other women to help them become more impactful leaders?

If I could talk to young women or even to my younger self, I would say, “Imagine what you could be as a leader.” I did not think about the possibility of leadership when I was younger, but as I went forward, attained goals, and watched others achieve, I kept thinking, I can do more! I developed the self-efficacy to go higher and make bold moves.
My message to my younger self and to young women today is this: Women can surprise the world with the impact they can make. Look beyond yourself and see what’s possible for a woman to accomplish, and then have the courage to try it. You'll be amazed by what you can do.

This year, #EmbraceEquity is the theme for International Women's Day. How do you embrace equity in your work?

I am very proud that the Crook County School District has a 99.3 percent graduation rate. To me, when you look at an outcome like that, you can see that our system is working hard toward equity. What are we doing differently to embrace and promote equity? I believe it’s that we recognize everyone—every student, every adult—as a unique person, and we focus on serving the needs of individuals. Then we do that over and over and over. When you do that, you get all your freshmen on track to graduate, and then you get everybody crossing that line at the end of graduation.
Our focus on the whole child—the physical, social, emotional, spiritual—allows us to serve one person at a time. That's how equity really works—when every person is valued, every person is served, and every person is loved, no matter who they are and what gifts, strengths, or needs they bring to the system.

Do you have any parting words of inspiration for others to take with them? 

Think about the kind of work you can do and how that will not only open up doors for you but open doors for others as well. I wish more people were inspired to go into education. It's been a hard decade, but education is what's going to shape the future. We need more educational leaders, and I encourage people to go into the education profession.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.

Penny Reinart is the former deputy executive director of ASCD and a lifetime educator of 39 years. A two-time Teacher of the Year award winner, she has 18 years of classroom experience working with K–8 students. After moving into the private sector, Penny Reinart led research, design, and development of digital products and professional learning focused on student achievement, educator impact, and organizational growth. She has held several leadership positions with education companies, most recently Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Achieve 3000, Kaplan K12, and Renaissance Learning.

Her contributions include developing literacy implementation and professional development services, leading gold-standard research initiatives, instructional design of a reading intervention program for striving adolescent readers, and an intensive reading intervention program for phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency development. She has been instrumental in the design of software using artificial intelligence for data-driven decisions in all content areas and the suite of services to facilitate the implementation of those products. Reinart's comprehensive school reform model has been widely recognized. An accomplished public speaker and consultant, she provided numerous keynote addresses for school districts across the United States and consulted Internationally.

She holds a bachelor's degree in child development from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Tx. and an education certification from West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Tx.

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