Elizabeth Elizardi knows a thing or two about leadership.
This seasoned educator is well-versed in both classroom and administrative roles at public, charter, and independent schools, and was a founding leadership coach for Leading Educators, a national nonprofit supporting teacher development. In addition, she was the founding director of Green Trees Early Childhood Village, an early childhood program at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans that has grown to 170 students and 40 educators since its 2015 inception. We sat down with Ms. Elizardi to learn more about her vision for the Lower School, what excites her about education, and even her musical talents.
What struck you most about your initial on-campus visit to Agnes Irwin?
Elizardi: I walked away from my visits feeling very inspired by the sense of joy and wonder in the Lower School. Many times when you visit a Lower School, you hear adult voices around the building and adults talking over children — whereas when I visited here, I walked away with an understanding that this school very much belonged to the girls and that their voices, identities, and experiences were supported by the teachers.
From your perspective, what is the value of an all-girls' education starting in the Lower School?
Elizardi: Girls are given the opportunity to occupy every seat that there is in an all-girls’ school, which allows them to explore every piece of their identity and things that interest them — their passions, their curiosities, and their talents, and they feel confident to pursue these avenues.
We know about how quickly a girl's level of confidence is depleted in her life, which makes it even more important to start empowering girls at earlier ages. So the earlier that we can begin to create communities where girls feel a sense of confidence and competence about their skills and abilities, the better we will be doing in the long run.
We talk a lot in the education world about the hidden curriculum of schools, how schools are microcosms of society and that many schools are still defined by male standards of success. That’s what I love about the all-girls’ environment and the mission of Agnes Irwin — because I think it really taps into the idea of girls better understanding their leadership identities and not being afraid to be bold and courageous and to explore.
Tell us about your leadership style. How has it allowed you and your teams to overcome challenges?
Elizardi: One of my most challenging lessons was learning to adapt my leadership style to what the school needed, what the division needed at any given point in time. The leader that I needed to be in year one to start the Green Trees Early Childhood Village was not the leader I needed to be in year five when I left the school in good hands. It required a very different skill set, and helped me tremendously.
My background in coaching often informs my leadership, and I place great value on providing opportunities for formal and informal discussions with teachers, including deliberate feedback about the ways in which my leadership style can assist them in their professional growth. My door is always open, and I would tell my colleagues that I needed their feedback in order to understand the ways that we needed to grow — that I’ll always listen with an open mind and heart.
What qualities and skills do you think are essential for girls to learn in order to be successful in today's world?
Elizardi: It's a very different world that they're entering, and it’s still being invented every single day. One quality that I think is essential is resilience — the components of overcoming challenges, bouncing back, steering through challenges sometimes, and then reaching out, which I think is the element that we so easily forget is part of resilience. People who are tightly connected to communities and have meaningful relationships have more meaningful lives. If we can teach our girls to connect with others in authentic ways and to face challenges with resilience, then they will have the necessary skills to be able to adapt to an evolving world.
I'm a big believer in autonomy and choice, and I think there needs to be aspects of both in the educational experience — where students feel like they own their own learning process and can be advocates for themselves, but also feel a sense of empowerment about the learning that they take part in. Our girls need to be exposed to heavy, complex, risky learning experiences that sometimes put them in a situation where they may fail, but they learn through their failures and mistakes. The sense of mastery that comes with being able to competently complete something leads to greater self efficacy. Learning must be authentic and purposeful.
How do you see the Lower School growing in the next few years?
Elizardi: We have a vibrant, welcoming, warm environment and talented educators who have compassion and care for our girls and a state-of-the-art learning environment that challenges and supports their learning.
I think that the next few years are going to be about deepening the ways in which our recently reaffirmed core values of excellence, character, community, and respect are implemented and influence our curriculum and daily school life — all aspects that The Agnes Irwin School has emphasized for 150 years. In addition, continuing the work of Living Leadership in the Lower School is important as we empower our youngest Owls to embrace leadership principles that prepare them to succeed in middle school, upper school, and beyond.
Something that I have been inviting the faculty to engage in as we get to know each other is one of the cornerstone assessments of the Positive Psychology practice, an approach that I researched and studied for my master’s degree and continue to implement during my current doctoral studies. The idea of bringing character strengths even more fully into our Lower School culture is important to enhancing the Agnes Irwin experience for teachers and students alike.
What hobbies/skills/interests do you have outside of work?
Elizardi: At times it's hard to engage in fun stuff because I'm in a doctoral program through Louisiana State University, and I find that most of my spare time is spent reading and writing for my research — which I love, by the way! I also love to be outdoors and find beautiful places in nature, especially through running and hiking. This past year, my husband and I took on the challenge of a 17-mile hike through a pine needle forest in Alabama — on a wet day, complete with soggy socks and shoes, broken bridges, and scaling down the ravine on our behinds. But we got through it!
I'm also a vocalist, and that's one thing that some people remember from my interview is that I sang for and with the girls. It was so fun.
If you could learn a new skill, what would that be?
Elizardi: I really want to learn how to roller skate backwards. I love roller skating, and grew up going to roller skating rinks near Ridley and would watch awestruck as people skated backwards. That and I would love to be able to take piano.
You're on your way to work on any given morning. So what's playing on your car radio or your phone speaker?
Elizardi: Either National Public Radio or a podcast. If it isn't NPR, then it’s usually either “The Daily,” a New York Times production, or "Heavyweight," another podcast that I enjoy that features individual stories of personal transformation.
To learn more about Ms. Elizardi, read her Letter from the Director.