Get Inspired: 5 Turbo-Charged Women Leaders in Education

A close look at how 5 extraordinary women leaders in education beat the odds and changed the face of America's public schools

Looking for some inspiration to hit your Turbo Button today? Look no further…  in honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite inspiring stories about women leaders in education.

In a world where women hold about 75% of U.S. teaching positions but only 30% of educational leadership roles, this list is undoubtedly a testament to the tenacity, resilience, and perseverance of women who were determined to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Without further ado, spend some time today getting acquainted (or reacquainted!) with these five extraordinary women leaders in education who’ve changed the lives of countless young people across the country.

Fannie Jackson Coppin

Turbo-Charged Triumph: Becoming the first African-American Superintendent

Fannie Jackson Coppin, first African-American Superintendent
Image source: Coppin State University

Born into slavery in the 1800s, Fannie Jackson Coppin’s aunt purchased her freedom. By age 14, she was working to help support her family but remained driven to advance her education. In 1860, Coppin earned admission to Oberlin College, the only U.S. college that accepted African-American women. During her studies, she dedicated herself to teaching African-Americans to read — for free.

After graduation, Coppin became a teacher at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth and also served as the principal of the Ladies Department. She progressed to becoming the first African-American woman principal and then the first African-American woman superintendent of a school district.

In recognition of her pioneering contributions to education, a teacher training school was named after her. That Baltimore-based college, now called Coppin State University, has more than 53 undergraduate majors and nine graduate programs.

Charl Williams

Turbo-Charged Triumph: Serving as the president of the National Education Association (NEA)


Charl Williams, portrait,
Image source: Women of Achievement

Born in Tennessee in the 1800s, Charl Williams made her mark as an educator and a suffragette. In an era when many women did not work outside the home, Williams became a district superintendent of Shelby County Schools at just 30 years old. During her six-year tenure, Williams doubled her district’s budget and allocated critical resources to buildings and equipment to spark continued growth.

Her success in district leadership led Williams to earn election as president of the National Education Association (NEA). Throughout her 30-year involvement with the NEA, Williams advocated for the creation of federal Department of Education, putting an end to discrimination against married women teachers, and the nurturing of future women leaders in education.

An adept speaker and social influencer, Williams is also known for her leadership role in the suffrage movement in Tennessee. She motivated her home state to ratify the 19th amendment, which granted all women the right to vote.

Carmen Fariña

Running the nation’s largest school district, New York City SchoolsServing as the president of the National Education Association (NEA)

Image source: Newsday

A New York City native, Carmen Fariña began her educational career as a social studies teacher in Brooklyn. She took on leadership roles as a principal and superintendent and ultimately attained the top post in New York City Schools — New York City School’s Chancellor.

As the daughter of immigrants who fled the Spanish Civil War, Fariña was the only Spanish-speaking student in her kindergarten class. She overcame these language barriers to become the first in her family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in science from New York University.  Also, she attained three master’s degrees focused on bilingual education, gifted education, and administration and supervision.

Although being an English language learner presented some early challenges for Fariña, she called her ability to speak two languages a “blessing.” She also maintained a keen awareness of the needs of diverse communities while continually striving to help all students achieve academic mastery.

Anne Holton

Turbo-Charged Triumph: Appointment as the Secretary of Education for Virginia

Women Leaders in Education Anne Holton
Image Source: New York Times

A current professor at George Mason University, Anne Holton has dedicated her career to supporting at-risk families and helping young people pave a path to future success. In the 1970s, Holton was instrumental in helping her father – the Virginia Governor, Linwood Holton — integrate Richmond Public schools. Along with her siblings, Holton attended a diverse public school with a predominantly African-American population.

Holton graduated from Princeton and earned a law degree from Harvard. She helped found a volunteer lawyers program that worked with economically disadvantaged community members. She later served as a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge A strong advocate for foster children, Holton directed a program that helped these at-risk students gain entry to college.

Ultimately appointed as the Secretary of Education for Virginia, Holton brought her compassion for underserved populations to her role. She advocated for increases in teacher pay and professional development while identifying barriers to attracting teaching talent to low-income schools.

Mary Ann Rannells

Turbo-Charged Triumph: Nomination  as the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year

Women Leaders in Education Mary Ann Rannells
Image Source: Idaho Ed

A current finalist for the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year Award, Mary Ann Rannells has more than four decades of experience in public education. She started her career as a middle school reading, English, and Spanish teacher and progressed to becoming a director of curriculum and instruction. From those roles, she moved into serving as deputy superintendent for Idaho’s State Department of Education and as a district superintendent.

Today, Rannells is superintendent of the West Ada school district. A widely admired educator in her home state, Rannells is known for her passionate advocacy for student achievement and commitment to teachers.  

Rannells cares deeply about students and knows that meeting their emotional needs is essential for academic success.

“Throughout my career, I have had a singular focus—what is best for boys and girls. The focus of public education should be to make sure kids are safe, that their emotional needs are being met, and that students are succeeding academically.”

Women Leaders in Education… and Everywhere Else

At Mawi Learning, we know today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. No matter which path they choose, students can find inspiration in all types of women who have overcome gender-based barriers to rise to the top ranks of their selected profession. To better equip today’s young women to follow their career dreams, learn more about how SEL tools can equip students for success.