Grad Spotlight: Mary Streshly on Stepping into Educational Leadership and Embodying Lessons from her Dissertation

“I’ve never been afraid to take risks,” said SF State University Ed.D. grad Mary Streshly (’15), recently named superintendent of Sequoia Union High School District.

Streshly comes to Sequoia with extensive experience in high school districts, as well as a focus on communication, student-centered learning, and community building. She most recently served as assistant superintendent in the Campbell Union High School District. Prior to that, she did her first stint at Sequoia as a bilingual resource teacher.

Streshly is not originally from Northern California. She began her career as a teacher at San Marcos High School in San Diego. Even then, she was thinking holistically about student learning, and so she took on the task of aligning curriculum to improve the performance of English language learners. Based in part on her work, San Marcos has been nationally recognized for its successes in that area.

“It’s really about looking at all the different pathways and ways to go about making positive impact and change in a district,” Streshly said. “I’ve always thought the best thing I can bring to the table is diverse experiences from having worked at a range of districts that have tackled many types of problems and initiatives.”

Streshly said Sequoia is “definitely not a district that needs any radical change. It does very well. It has a great image in the community.” Describing her role, she went on to say, “I believe in continued incremental improvement. Nothing is perfect. There are always ways that students and teachers can have just a little bit better experience. My job is to find out where we can nudge and support teachers and students.”

Streshly has always wanted to return to Sequoia because she appreciated the strong community of teachers, staff, and students, as well as the district’s openness to innovation.

“I was so amazed at the high quality of people that worked in Sequoia when I first worked there,” she said. “Then, when I interviewed with the board, we talked about the community again. It’s really inspiring what everyone brings to the district.”

Most importantly, Streshly is excited about working with Sequoia’s diverse student population. “Sequoia has a real range of students,” she said. “I loved teaching English learners, immigrant newcomers. It really has a global feel on the Peninsula. It has a rich diversity of students, so you can develop programs for all sorts of students.”

This means ensuring students are heard. “The student voice is critical, and oftentimes it’s the smartest voice in the room, not to mention the most relevant.”

Given the range of students at Sequoia, including a continued need for the district to improve the support they provide to long-term English learners, Streshly plans to draw upon her own experience ensuring all students have what they need, and explore research on promising programs from other districts.

While her ability to lead is strengthened by her experience working in different districts, Streshly knows each district has unique strengths and challenges. “You never want to say, ‘this is how we did it in another place, so this is how we’re going to do it here.’”

Streshly’s commitment to equity is ingrained, especially given her experience in SF State’s Educational Leadership doctoral program. She says educational leaders should always be asking the tough questions. “Are we hearing from all parents? Are all students having the experience they need to have? Looking at the difference between equity and equality and making sure we’re providing the right supports.”

Streshly came to education by following in her father’s footsteps.

“My father has always been a role model for a phenomenal educator – teacher, principal, coach, and superintendent. He’s been superintendent in multiple districts and has an amazing reputation,” Streshly said. “I thought I was going to emulate him. I thought, ‘I’m going to be just like my dad.’ Why not? He was so successful. People love him. He was gregarious, charismatic.”

But, she soon realized that directly emulating him and his style was not possible. “Not only was he a different person, but being a big male, people treated him differently. People react to [female] leadership differently,” Streshly said. “That was an epiphany I had when I became a high school principal – at all levels, people react to female leadership differently – it doesn’t necessarily mean negatively – but you have to have your own leadership style. The way he led was a very masculine way that worked for him, and it would not have worked for me. I would have had a negative response. What would be from him considered charismatic would actually from me be considered overly direct or aggressive.”

Streshly used this insight as the inspiration for her dissertation work – female leadership in education – because even though most educators are women, most educational leaders are men. “I had to fight for it a little bit, because nobody thinks gender is an issue in public education,” she said. "Women represent 80% of the workforce. But ironically, that’s the reason that [gender] is an issue.”

“I started interviewing female leaders and listening, and realized I could learn something valuable to take away for my leadership,” said Streshly. “All of them said they never wanted to be superintendent, and none of them had considered gender to be an issue – until they got to be superintendents.”

When Streshly was tapped for the superintendent job at Sequoia, she revisited her dissertation and reminded herself of the lessons she learned from the women she interviewed.

“All of them were highly collaborative, highly relational, and very much systems thinkers – understanding that the process is just as important as the outcome,” Streshly said. “The humility they all had and the passion for making a big impact on the students, before their reputation – they put that first, and that just came out loud and clear, and it was so inspiring. They weren’t just talking about politics and how you had to be. They talked about students first. I never had to get them down to talking about kids. It was the very first thing out of their mouth.”

Now Streshly is counted among these women. “It’s the biggest honor of my life. I’ve loved every role I’ve ever taken, and I hope to love this role just as much as I loved teaching, just as much as I loved being a high school principal, just as much as I loved coaching softball and basketball.” And, she hopes to inspire other women to make the leap from the classroom to leadership, perhaps even in the top role, so that more women are educating and working with communities as superintendents of schools.