Big Fish: Sue Sadler, the New Head of the Bryn Mawr School, Is All About The Girls

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Bryn Mawr’s new head of school, Sue Sadler, with students at the start of the school year.

In her second week into the new school year, Sue Sadler seems upbeat and at-ease. Her official start as the new head at the Bryn Mawr School was July 1, and she’s spent the past few months settling-in at Bryn Mawr and in Baltimore. She’s eager and ready to lead.

An unexpectedly difficult initiation took place in August when a call from the Baltimore Sun brought the news that Charlottesville shooter and  Maryland Ku Klux Klan member Richard Preston had been employed as a janitor at the Bryn Mawr School from 1996-2001. Bryn Mawr promptly sent a ‘friends and family’ email — acknowledging his employ, condemning his actions, and offering counseling to any student feeling uneasy about his former connection to the school. (So far, no takers.)

With that crisis under her belt and the school year officially underway, Sadler has turned to the business at hand: taking up the reins at the Bryn Mawr School and guiding it into the future.

In the world of all-girls education, Sadler is a lifer. She comes to Bryn Mawr after 31 years at Hathaway Brown,  a highly-regarded, all-girls, K-12 school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Beginning as an early-childhood science teacher, Sadler later served as chair of the math department, head of the middle school, upper school director,  and associate head of school. She also took the lead in the establishment of an innovation lab, an IT hub, a wellness and leadership program, and the oversight of several facilities updates. The Sadler Promise In Education Award was established by a Hathaway Brown alumni donor in her honor.

Sadler’s thoughts on teaching, and on teaching girls specifically, are deep and heartfelt. Last week, she talked with Baltimore Fishbowl from her cheerful office at Bryn Mawr.

 Why did you leave Hathaway Brown to come to Bryn Mawr?

 I was very happy at Hathaway. But when the longtime Head of School retired, I realized that I had a skill set that I would like to advance. As I told my students — it was time for me to do what I had been challenging them to do – to reach for my dreams.

Will you be teaching a class at Bryn Mawr?

Not this year! For now, I will be a student advisor, which will keep me in touch with individual girls, and I’ll be spending a half day in each class, to see how things are done. At some point, I would like to give a series of Leadership Seminars. Teaching leadership for girls is something I believe in strongly.

How do you teach leadership?

First of all, you need to know yourself really well. Being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses is the beginning of developing a leadership style. Then there are the skills: public speaking (something Bryn Mawr has emphasized for many years), conflict resolution, and negotiation. These are specific skills you can teach. The best, of course, is when readiness to lead combines with a passion for a cause or an organization.

Have you read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In?

Yes, I thought Lean In had a real authenticity. It resonated for me especially in some of the differences she ascribes to men and women in the workplace. The idea that on job applications, for example, men will apply when they think they have 60 percent of the attributes required, whereas women will wait till they have 100 percent. We (women) tend to want ourselves to be perfect before we put ourselves out there – we are doing that to ourselves! Which is why we need to be teaching girls how to solve problems on the fly, to ask questions, and to be willing to step-up and take charge.

What are you reading now?

I try to read two books at a time – one in the field [of education] and one just for fun. I am reading an interesting book called The Confidence Code, whose premise is that in many situations, confidence is as important as competence. And my daughter just sent me A Man Called Ove, which she says I will like.

What do you feel is your mandate at Bryn Mawr?

I hope it is to keep the school on its trajectory. To provide academic excellence in a nurturing environment designed for girls.

How do you keep a high-achieving school with a competitive student body from feeling too pressurized?

By providing the support in learning that girls need to thrive. I think Bryn Mawr understands girls in a unique way — the role of sisterhood, the importance of mentoring, of believing in their potential. We have high expectations, but it is a very happy place.

What is the role of the athletic program in the life of the school?

Athletics add a big dimension to a child’s life, and [it’s] a great way to represent your school. Winning on the sports field is great, but losing can be a valuable lesson, too. I would say that participating is more important than the win/loss ratio.

How do you like Baltimore?

We love it! Right now my husband Mark, who’s retired,  is getting to do more exploring that I am, but we love to walk in Lake Roland Park and going to the Charles Theatre. We’ve discovered Hampden and the ice cream at The Charmery. The Aquarium is wonderful, especially for this former science teacher. And we took a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield and spent a fascinating day there. My favorite place has been the room at the BMA that houses the Cone Collection. Another nice thing is that our house is so close to Bryn Mawr that I can walk to school, which has been a daily treat.

Do you consider yourself a Midwesterner?

(Laughs) No, I don’t! I grew up in Massachusetts and went to Colby College in Maine. Our four children are grown now, and live in Ohio and California. I’m very much looking forward to being back east.

You’ve said the best advice you ever got was “do what you love.” What’s the worst?

When I was at Colby, I took a computerized career test. The advice I got was, “work with machines, not people.” I didn’t take it, and I am so glad!