The First of Many

Image of Carissa Moffat Miller

By Carissa Moffat Miller 

March is Women’s History Month, an important month that gives me an opportunity to reflect each year. I have two daughters, and I take time to have conversations with them about the important role women and men have played throughout our history to afford us the opportunities we have today.

We talk about women like Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King, Harriet Tubman, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We purposefully fill out NCAA Women’s basketball March Madness brackets -- not just men’s tournament brackets. (My daughter even wrote an op-ed recently about why women’s basketball should get more attention for her high school newspaper.)

And we also talk about Frances Timm and Lila Moffat, people who will never fill the pages of a history book but had a profound impact on my personal life. 

These are the women, along with many others, who paved the way for me to become the first person in my family to go college and then go on to earn a doctorate.

They are the ones who now have made it possible for me to claim another first: the first woman to be appointed executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

This statistic was brought to my attention after I applied for the job. It’s a bit surprising given the demographics in our education system, where women make up 75 percent of the teaching workforce. Yet in education, as with other industries, we still struggle to ensure women and people of color and other diverse backgrounds are equally represented in positions of leadership. CCSSO has not been immune to that.

The good news is that it is improving. More than 40 percent of our state chiefs are female leaders. Still, we have room for significant improvement. That responsibility is on my mind as I take on this new role.

I recently received an email from a colleague, saying “I consider myself truly blessed to have strong female role models like you to look up to as I embark on my professional career.”

I’ll admit, it gave me pause. I am a parent to two daughters, I was the assistant coach for the first NJCAA women’s volleyball championship team for the College of Southern Idaho, and I have mentored many staff members and students throughout my career. But this note made me aware in a new way of the role I play not only as a leader, but specifically as a female leader.

The role I fill today is not only a nod to those who have come before me, but just as important for every young woman who will follow me. It is important that we soon reach a day when we no longer need to recognize this as a “first” because it will be a norm in our society, across industries and sectors.

At the same time, I realize this moment isn’t just about women – now or in the future. It also is important for us to stop and recognize many firsts still have yet to come for people of diversity, such as young men and women of color. We have yet to achieve that “first” here at CCSSO or in many classrooms, superintendent offices or other leadership positions across education.

This is a priority for our organization, and state leaders across the country. For example, just last week, we announced the Diverse and Learner-Ready Teacher Initiative, a network of nine states committed to taking a closer look at how they can diversify the teaching workforce and better prepare all teachers to serve diverse learners.

Internally, when I met with staff just before I was announced as executive director, I let them know my first priority as executive director would be to focus on the next steps in our internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. Specifically, we plan to hire a new senior-level position at CCSSO in the coming weeks focused on equity to guide us in our work internally as an organization, and how we continue to support states to advance equity for all kids.

These are difficult conversations to have, and make many of us uncomfortable at times. But as executive director, I realize I have to get used to being uncomfortable.

All of our young children, particularly women and people of color, must be afforded the same – and even better – opportunities in the years to come to make sure positions of leadership equally represent the communities we serve.

We must make it part of their everyday experience, part of the norm, to see people like them in leadership positions, to know that it is possible and achievable.

I am humbled by this first in my life, and I remain committed to making many more “firsts” possible for the students we work hard to serve every day. 

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