All-Girls Schools: From a Male Perspective

Nightingale Bamford School

When working in girls’ schools we are often asked how an all-girls educational environment can prepare girls for the “real world”— a world that’s coed. This question infers that opportunities for cooperative, positive interactions between girls and boys are not available for students attending all-girls schools. What the inquirer is not considering, however, are the numerous healthy, constructive co-curricular opportunities available to the girls, such as joint service programs, choirs, theater productions, debates, school dances, field trips, etc. The question also glosses over the male role models in the girls’ lives, both in their schools—faculty, administrators, coaches—and personal lives—fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and friends.

As a leading advocate, NCGS seeks to engage the power of many voices to strengthen our schools, communities, and world. We are a coalition of educators—women and men—with a shared commitment to the education and healthy development of girls. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to hear directly from male voices in our girls’ school community.

I had the pleasure of hearing from Paul Burke, Vice President of the NCGS Board of Trustees and Head of The Nightingale-Bamford School, along with Jamie O’Donnell, a current Nightingale parent. Paul and Jaime shared perspectives from their unique vantage points: the male head of an all-girls institution and as fathers who selected an all-girls education for their daughters.

MEGAN MURPHY: How do you respond when you are asked what it’s like being a male head of an all-girls school?

PAUL BURKE: I typically offer a two-part response. First, I hearken back to my decision to apply for the Nightingale Head of School post in 2011. Nightingale initially hired me in 2008 as a division head, and I did not think at the time I would become Head of School, primarily because of my gender. The school never had a male Head of School.

Ultimately, I decided to apply because I felt a genuine connection to the mission of the school. I also believed that girls need to know there are men, as well as women, who are so invested in their success they are willing to dedicate their professional lives to them. A recent Harvard Business Review piece entitled “The Men Who Mentor Women” makes several key points along these lines. According to their study of Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations, male champions “have learned that gender inclusiveness means involving both men and women in advancing women’s leadership.”

NCGS advocates for girls’ schools because it believes an all-girls environment is the best way to educate girls, and in doing so we give them a better chance to overcome institutional and cultural biases. A good girls’ school also tells its graduates they never walk alone. The bonds the girls form at girls’ schools are as lasting as they are distinct. They exist within the sisterhood of peers, but also across generational lines with teachers—female and male—many of whom are there for them for life.

Second, over time I have come to realize my leadership of Nightingale has had an unanticipated and unplanned benefit. Namely, it is not about me.

The girls are our school’s most important leaders.

Every year I host the seniors for a leadership retreat where this message is made clear and real. I have changed several of our key assemblies to amplify their voices. Our school’s convocation used to have an address from the Head of School as its cornerstone. Now we have four speakers: a fourth grader, an eighth grader, a senior, and an alumna. The girls are reminded that it is their school. When Madeleine Albright visited Nightingale, she was introduced by a middle school girl and interviewed by upper school girls. This decision was an obvious one. When the first female Secretary of State comes to a girls’ school, she should be talking with girls. My guess, however, is that if I were leading a co-ed or a boys’ school, I would have happily played a more prominent role, when my most useful position is really to the side and comfortably off-stage.

Leading a girls’ school obligates me to be more thoughtful in these moments and I think ultimately gives me a better chance of doing the job of leading others in the service of girls’ education.

MEGAN: Do you consider yourself a feminist, and if so, what does that term mean to you?

PAUL: I am with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote We Should All Be Feminists. (Check out her TED Talk if you have not seen it yet. We showed it to our middle and upper school students this fall. It is well worth your time.)

Teachers and school leaders forsake the incentives other professions may bring. In the case of girls’ school educators it has to be—in part at least—about making the world fairer for women. As Adichie says, “For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.”

In this sense, girls’ schools are an outgrowth of the culture that surrounds us: we divide human beings into two groups—boys who can’t come and girls who can. Step inside our schoolhouse doors, however, and you see an environment that is decidedly countercultural. These girls at Nightingale are not only included, they are celebrated and embraced—sometimes literally, always metaphorically.

As the cliché goes, when it comes to inclusivity and learning, we are all on a journey. This is humbling stuff, and teachable moments occur in the Head’s office as much as they do in kindergarten classrooms and every space in between. I have much to learn from my colleagues. Nightingale’s very best teachers craft lessons and utilize pedagogy that promote gender equity. Sometimes it is what they teach. Other times it is how they teach. At all times, it is who they are. They are fully on board, and the girls know it.

MEGAN: In your tenure as a girls’ school educator, how have girls’ schools evolved as we continually learn more about how girls learn best?

PAUL: It is a thrilling time to be in education. Change is afoot. At our school, change is being led via a reconsideration of assessment. We made the decision to step away from AP exams last fall and are moving into a period when teachers in our Upper School, and indeed throughout our school, are reconsidering how best to assess girls’ understanding. Teachers are leaning into more collaboration with peers, across disciplines and divisions, and they are asking the same of the girls. Part of this is driven by broader trends in education, but part of it comes from more fully leveraging what we know about how girls learn best. Anecdotes and experience combined with research all indicate that girls love to learn together, and in partnership with a caring teacher. Simple to state, hard to enact.

A reconsideration of assessment obligates a reconsideration of the entire enterprise. This is not necessarily revolutionary, nor should it be, but it is decidedly evolutionary and very much in step with the times. Curricula for girls should have equal parts responsibility and adventure. We are responsible for preparing girls for what the world is asking of them. Providing girls with more team-based, “real-world” assessments not only works in the moment, but it prepares them for where they are going.

At the heart of the entire enterprise lies a relationship between a teacher and a student, which is central to any good education, but that much more critical in a girls’ school. Because this is so obviously true, I believe it goes unexplored and therefore untapped, or at least not fully realized. We turn then to the social-emotional benefits of being cared for and known in a classroom. This is vitally important, but incomplete. I think girls’ schools should lead the way in thinking about how a relationship between a teacher and her students advances learning and accomplishment for girls.

This is not new, of course. I believe Socrates had some thoughts on it. Still, the realities of life in 2017 should encourage us to return to this question with fresh eyes and armed with our knowledge of what works best for girls. Let’s consider this together.

MEGAN: How do you involve male role models, particularly fathers, in the life of a girls’ school?

PAUL: Honestly, I am not sure I think about this enough. Perhaps I should! I think more about providing the girls with female role models via a speaker series or in other positions of leadership in the school.

I do, however, think I can be helpful to Nightingale fathers, particularly since I am one. My daughter is in our second grade. I notice things, and reflect them back to fathers in ways that are hopefully useful. To give one small example that may prove the broader point:

I greet the girls in the morning by shaking their hands at the schoolhouse doors. In a wholly unscientific way, I noticed Nightingale fathers seemed to be less inclined to wear Nightingale paraphernalia—hats, sweatshirts, scarfs, etc.—than were mothers. At an address to Lower School parents I said I believe it is important for all parents to indicate their pride in their daughters’ school. Wear that Nightingale hat. Show up at our Homecoming game. Let her know that you are as invested in her school as any other in your life—whether it be your own alma mater or another child’s school.

Soon thereafter sales for male gear at our school store increased, which was not only good news for our Parent Association—it was significant for Nightingale girls to see evidence that fathers were fully involved in their life’s journey.

MEGAN: Why did you decide an all-girls school was right for your family?

JAMIE O’DONNELL: The first part of any school choice is to decide on a school that is both qualitatively excellent and offers the best fit for the student. In our daughter’s case, we discovered in Nightingale-Bamford a truly excellent school, one where the approach to education held by administrators, staff, and teachers fosters an ability to learn in a supportive and encouraging environment. This resonated strongly with us, and we felt the school would be a wonderful fit.

The “all-girls” part of the decision is of course significant in its own right. We concluded an all-girls environment for our daughter would enhance the strengths and approach to education Nightingale offers. We believed an all-girls environment would enable the girls and young women to focus on school—academics, arts, activities, social life, and sports—without the distractions that a coed education can bring. Participation, intellectual curiosity, confidence, friendship—all of these seem better able to develop and grow more fully in an all-girls school. Three years into our daughter’s girls’ school experience, we feel this part of the decision has absolutely proven correct.

MEGAN: How do you respond to fellow parents who say girls won’t be prepared for the real world, which is coed, if they attend an all-girls school?

JAMIE: It is easy to point to the research and anecdotal evidence supporting that an all-girls education develops individuals well-prepared to flourish outside of school and later in life. Single-sex education, whether for boys or girls, is not a vacuum. The students have plenty of opposite sex exposure in their lives, ranging from teachers in class to siblings at home. School is not 100% of their lives. But in the classroom and around the school, an all-girls experience enables the girls and young women to grow as individuals with wonderful amounts of confidence and curiosity. If that is the result, how can someone be ill-prepared for “the real world”?

MEGAN: What are the ways in which you think your daughter is benefiting from her all-girls experience?

JAMIE: Our daughter attended coed schools until Grade 5 when we moved to New York and discovered Nightingale. Coeducation was fine, and our daughter had and maintains close friendships with many boys who were her classmates. After entering an all-girls environment, however, we have noticed our daughter has an enhanced sense of self and sense of possibility—a feeling that she can try or tackle anything. Maybe this is in part to her growing a bit older, but we attribute it to being in all-girls environment where she is encouraged to believe she can achieve what she sets out to accomplish.

I believe our daughter has benefited greatly across a wide spectrum of facets—confidence to pursue her interests and develop intellectual curiosity; greater confidence to pursue a range of activities based on her own initiative (without parental pushing); greater confidence to engage in social settings whether with peers or adults; and confidence to form close friendships with many different girls in her class and around school. It is actually a long list of things! The common word is “confidence,” as I believe an all-girls environment has allowed her to develop this characteristic in herself, and this manifests itself in many ways. Much can be attributed to the excellent education and support Nightingale provides, and I do believe the all-girls environment is the wonderful underpinning that accelerated this growth.

Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools

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