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Strong Leadership Is Collaboration

Grace-Metcalf-NSTA-Congress-17.pngJill Grace (left) and Shawna Metcalf (right) at Niagara Falls in 2017. Grace and Metcalf represented CSTA at the 2017 National Congress on Science Education hosted by NSTA.

This is no ordinary President’s message. This June/July issue is special because it marks a clear line in the sand at CSTA – we shift the Presidency. On June 30, 2019,  Jill’s presidency ends and on July 1, 2019, Shawna’s begins. In a figurative and literal sense, this is Jill’s last chance to have the platform – but instead, in keeping with their pattern of collaboration over these past two years, Shawna and Jill decided to write this President’s message together. Leadership in transition – one anticipating the new, one saying goodbye to the old. Lessons learned from both.

Anticipating the New – Jill Grace

For the past several years, we have made a sincere commitment at CSTA to foster leadership both within CSTA and across the state. The status quo of the past had led to a leadership pipeline crisis in science education in California. There were the veterans who dominated the field, gracious mentors to countless educators across the state, but for some reason, the institutional knowledge and “know how” wasn’t moving through the ranks. There was no blame for this – everyone was working hard trying to fight for the rights of science teachers to have hands-on instruction, infuse some inquiry, and say it was okay to let kids learn from outside the walls of a classroom – all working hard in spite of education policies that seemed to suffocate innovation. Even more ironically, the presidency of CSTA – a six-year volunteer commitment (two as elect, two as president, and two as past) – had no real structure for mentoring between the three. Likewise, there wasn’t really a mechanism for mentoring incoming volunteer board members – busy with full-time jobs and eager goodwill to make a difference.

In all situations, state-wide and within CSTA, a shift started to take place and there was the realization that things had to be done differently – the veterans were moving on and a changing vision of science education in California required strong new leadership to both fill their shoes and support the re-noviced field. Strong leadership needs support. Collaborations began to be formed to unite science education leaders across the state. Supporting these efforts, CSTA built programs to support these emerging leaders – welcoming them to the table and fostering their ability to both learn from the veterans and collectively learn from each other.

There was one more area to consider: the leadership structure within CSTA itself. Although there were generous and smart people all around ready to help at a moments notice when I transitioned to the presidency, I had to ask. Our Executive Director, Jessica Sawko, was the clear outlier – we immediately set up a system for working together, but that same structured collaboration wasn’t taking place elsewhere.

This struck me as odd and seemed to me to be a parallel to other leadership situations. When we serve in a larger leadership role, and it’s time for new leadership to be welcomed, we have to be very conscious of the following: don’t just say congratulations – new leaders need you to outstretch your hand. Don’t just tell them the hand is there if needed – new leaders need you to both anticipate the need and to support changes in the system as warranted.

There also seemed to be another need with the rise in leadership: a clear shift in perspective. Shifting to structures that led to high support meant the CSTA presidency wasn’t a two-year prospect for one individual, it meant shifting the perspective “I” to “we” – a collective group holding a long-term vision together and recognizing the vision couldn’t just encompass two years. It meant working with President-Elect Shawna Metcalf, from day one so she could be as prepared as possible to transition and, more importantly, mentor the next person – moving the work forward without skipping a beat. To her credit, she agreed. Together, we have worked hard with the guidance and support from CSTA’s Executive Committee (me, Shawna Metcalf, Lisa Hegdahl, Marian Murphy-Shaw, Gini Vandergon, and Jessica Sawko) to expand that perspective and build structures that could foster mentoring in leadership between the presidents. Shawna, Lisa, Marian, Gini, and Jessica – thank you for all of the extra work, guidance, and vision needed to shift the “I” to the “we.” This also meant extra help from Jessica and our Past President, Lisa, to further extended to mentoring vision to the entire board and build a system of mentoring for everyone (still a work in progress, but we are getting there).

I sit here today with mixed emotions. I will miss the opportunities that came because of the role of CSTA president, and I am ready for the next phase. I will miss the work, and I am tired. I am longing to keep learning from the leaders that came before me, and I am excited by what I see in new leaders stepping up. I am especially excited to see how Shawna will move us forward, and I commit to keeping my outstretched hand in sight. She is a smart visionary, a strong voice for students and teachers, and a grounded and thoughtful leader. As we enter a new era that will include a new executive director, she will shape CSTA into its next chapter. We are lucky she is there.

To the board members I have been so fortunate to work with during this official time period, thank you for your consistent dedication and hard work. You are truly an inspiration – there could be no better group of people to represent our science education community. To our members, thank you for the opportunity to represent your voices – it’s been a true honor. To Jessica, there simply aren’t enough words to express the depth of my gratitude for your guidance and support. I can’t wait to see all that you will accomplish in your new chapter.

To Shawna, it can be daunting to know the gravity of the task you are about to embark on. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. But you are ready. I’m so eager to see what will be accomplished in your tenure. You’ve got this and know we are all here for you.

Saying Goodbye to the Old – Shawna Metcalf

Taking on a leadership role is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Having that leadership role come to an end is bittersweet. Whether you are a department chair or TOSA, CSTA Board Member or Committee Member, you have spent countless hours pouring your heart and soul into your work leaving a lasting and important mark on students and teachers. The same holds true for both the president and executive director of CSTA. As an organization, we have been fortunate to have two amazingly dedicated women at the helm. Jill Grace and Jessica Sawko have set the bar high for what it means to lead this organization. They have spent countless hours going above and beyond job descriptions, taking on additional responsibilities and commitments, doing what they can to make a difference. It is what great leaders do. But, what do you do when the time comes to step aside?

Leaving a leadership role can be just as daunting as starting one. Everyone will ask you questions, some easy and others you might struggle to answer. What are your next steps? What are you going to do with all of that free time? Ha!! Free time in education…that is just funny. How are you going to fill the void that was dominated by the responsibilities of your position? Then, there are the questions you ask yourself. How do you hand over the reins to someone new knowing that what you cultivated is no longer under your control? Do you just go quietly into the sunset, leaving those behind to their own devices? How involved do you stay?

Fortunately, I have watched quite a few amazing leaders undergo this transition. What I have learned from these remarkable women so far will help me throughout my presidency, not just when the time comes for it to end. Foster leadership in those around you by providing them with the tools they need to be successful. Trust in those who step up to fill the gaps because we all have the same ultimate goal in mind: cultivating a love of science and ensuring all kids have access to high-quality science education. When you create a system that encourages mentorship, you can walk away feeling confident that new leaders will emerge and be successful. When you streamline policies and procedures, you can be certain the gears will still turn, whether you are there or not. These are just some of the lessons learned that make taking on the role of CSTA president less daunting.

While I have been fortunate to have incredible leaders to learn from, there are five who truly stand out in my mind: the three most recent CSTA Presidents (Laura Henriques, Lisa Hegdahl, and Jill Grace), Marian Murphy-Shaw, and Jessica Sawko. Laura has shown me how to continue to lead through others. Lisa pulled me into CSTA leadership, recognizing something in me I didn’t know was there. Jill has mentored and prepared me to take on the world. Marian taught me to welcome new leaders for who they are, not who we want them to be. Jessica kept me sane and has been my safety net. Combined, these remarkable women have well over four decades of not only CSTA involvement, but extraordinary CSTA leadership. While their leadership will be missed, each and everyone has gone above and beyond to make sure the leadership pipeline flows. Thank you for everything you have done for CSTA and to prepare me to lead such an important organization. I am fortunate to call you all friends and mentors.

As an organization, we will most certainly miss Jessica Sawko, as she is leaving rather large shoes to be filled, but I am confident that her leadership has set us up for continued success. While Lisa is finally done with the six-year commitment she made to CSTA, her voice will not be gone. I will always hear her bring the conversation back to teachers and students. Although her role is shifting, we still have Jill Grace as past president for two years…two more years of her mentoring and guidance, for which I am incredibly grateful. Jessica, Lisa, and Jill, you have left lasting marks on CSTA and science education in California. We are all proud of you and wish you all the best on your next adventures.


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Jill Grace

Written by Jill Grace


Jill Grace is a Regional Director at the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd and President of CSTA (2017-2019).

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