During Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating women who were Upstanders in their community and truly transformed our schools. Today we’re talking about Ella Flagg Young, the first female superintendent to lead a major urban school district.
“No one can work in another’s harness.”
– Ella Flagg Young
Many methods and practices we see in teaching today can be traced back decades or even centuries to the innovative thinkers and leaders who recognized the power of education. Upstanders like Ella Flagg Young paved the way for today’s educators by thinking differently about the role of teachers within a school community. She was the Superintendent of Chicago Schools – the first female Superintendent to lead a district of that size – and advocated for increased teacher voice, student-driven learning, and child development focused on growth instead of discipline. She was Moving This World from the time she started as Superintendent in 1909 and has influenced our education system for decades to come.
Who was Ella Flagg Young?
Ella Flagg was born in Buffalo, New York, on January 15, 1845. Though she didn’t attend school until the age of 10, she taught herself to read and write by the time she began formal education. Unfortunately, her own enthusiasm for learning wasn’t matched by her parents, who were not supportive of her education. She would drop out of school only a few months later, but her desire to learn and help others learn would remain. At 15, she took a certification exam to become a teacher. She passed but was told she was too young to teach professionally.
In 1862, Ella graduated from the Chicago Normal School and finally began her career as an educator, returning that year to Chicago Normal School as an elementary teacher and taking on the role of Principal in 1865.
After leaving the Chicago Normal School, she served as the principal of several Chicago-area schools from 1876 to 1888, including the Skinner School, one of the city’s most prestigious elementary schools. Rather than enforcing her own way of doing things, Ella Flagg had a reputation for allowing her teachers to set their own lesson plans and teaching methods.
Empowering educators to find and follow the practices that were most effective for their students was a hallmark of Ella Flagg Young’s leadership. As the Superintendent of Chicago schools, she gave teachers in her district a say in issues that pertained to them, marking the first practical use of teacher councils.
In addition to her work as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, Ella Flagg Young was a member of the Illinois State Board of Education, the first to serve as president of the National Education Association, and a prominent member and advocate in the Progressive Movement and Women’s Suffrage movement.
Ella Flagg Young’s Lasting Impact on SEL
A natural educator all her life, Ella Flagg Young seemed to have an innate sense of how to get the best out of students and other teachers. She understood that the classroom is where students will spend most of their time during the school day and that classroom teachers are best placed to know the most effective ways to support their students.
Effectively implementing social emotional learning across a school community requires multiple stakeholders to pull in the same direction. Ella Flagg Young’s leadership demonstrates how students can benefit when district and school leaders empower educators to be active participants in the education decision-making process.
Ella Flagg Young’s introduction of the first teacher councils influenced the course of education in ways that remain with us today. Schools and districts across the country now have leadership teams made up of teachers, administrators, counselors, and paraprofessionals who work together to determine the best ways to support students’ social, emotional, and educational outcomes. Some districts are even turning to students themselves to understand SEL needs in their community better.
As we celebrate the impact of influential women leaders in education this month, we give gratitude for Ella Flagg Young. Join us for a deep breath of gratitude for her work, impact, and ever-growing legacy.
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