Dr. Catherine B. (Devlin) Gardner '95 is Director of The Principals' Center (TPC) at Harvard University, the nation's first center dedicated to the support and development of principals and other school leaders through their many programs in professional education.
Gardner entered Hotchkiss in 1991 as a prep, following her sister, Celia Devlin McLane '92, to Lakeville. But the family's association with the School began long ago with the attendance of their great-uncle, Pierce Butler Jr., Class of 1910. At Hotchkiss, Gardner enjoyed athletics, participating in varsity field hockey, swimming, and track all four years. She took advantage of the many extracurricular opportunities, including giving tours for Admissions and volunteering as a candy striper at the Sharon Hospital. "One of my first experiences was working with Mrs. Martha Virden on the Centennial Committee celebration my prep year. The planning itself was fun, but it was the way she treated me that stood out. She asked my opinion and listened to what I had to say. It showed me early on that faculty and staff at Hotchkiss valued us not only as students but also as individuals."
Gardner found the School's history and math programs inspirational. "I loved the content in Mr. Barker's American Government course. He challenged us to think independently, and I felt a passion for the topic in a way I had not experienced before. Mr. Drake's course was also a standout. It was a new subject to me, and Mr. Drake really pushed me to find my voice and believe in myself as a learner." She had thoughts of teaching early on (though she believed she would only do that for a few years and then move on to another career), and was motivated further by the general enthusiasm of the Hotchkiss faculty and the passion of the entire learning community.
After matriculating at Middlebury College, Gardner double-majored in history and political science, and later, added a minor in teacher education. "At Middlebury, I had the opportunity to work as a tutor with a local high school freshman and found that I loved helping him to achieve academic growth. During the summers, I was fortunate to work with kids at a camp in Colorado, and I really enjoyed getting to know the campers. I also coached a middle school field hockey team my junior and senior years, and that was truly rewarding.
"Combined, these experiences helped me realize that education was something I would stay with," says Gardner. "I picked up the education minor my junior year, allowing me the chance to student-teach at the middle school where I was also coaching. I had an outstanding mentor with whom I worked and discovered that teaching the students I was also coaching had great value. It was gratifying to see the students develop, both on the field and in the classroom. So what I'd envisioned as a steppingstone between college and another career led me to the understanding that I wanted to work in education permanently." Gardner received her B.A. in 2000 and with that, gained a firm commitment to stay the course.
Once graduated from Middlebury, Gardner moved to Oregon to work at a school. After several years of working, she began considering graduate school. "After a few years, it became clear that school leadership and administration were really my passion, so I stayed at the school teaching for several years-taking on as many leadership roles as I could to try to gain experience before continuing my education."
Fortunately for Gardner, during that period Stanford started the Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies (POLS) program, which ultimately ended up being a great fit. Energized to be back in learning mode, Gardner found her plans to return to a school after graduating began to shift. "As soon as I started at Stanford, I realized how much more there was for me to learn. My goal had always been to maximize my impact and contribution to the field, and I wanted to explore all the ways I might achieve that. For the first time, I began to consider the impact I might have if I worked one step outside of a school to influence the bigger picture. It was the first time I considered the broader landscape of schooling."
Gardner applied to doctoral programs and found an ideal match in Vanderbilt. "It was important to me that if I was going to obtain this degree, I also have the practical skills and experience to be effective. A team at Vanderbilt had just received a grant to study teacher compensation. Hired early on, I had the chance to learn policy and experience the research world firsthand, while also taking classes and learning about the education system as a whole." Gardner received her Doctorate in education policy and leadership from Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education in 2009.
"Over the course of nearly five years at Vanderbilt, there were little moments that helped me to see two things clearly: I was most passionate about improving outcomes for all students; and I loved creating the conditions for people to be as effective as possible in their work -- whatever that work may be. As the research project came to a close, I found a role at The Steppingstone Foundation (TSF) and knew it was the right next step."
The job at TSF, a not-for-profit that develops and implements programs that prepare underserved students for college success, proved to be "a dream" position for Gardner. "The main work of TSF -- the direct service work they do with students -- is incredible. I was inspired by the people I worked with and the passion they brought to their work. Interestingly, TSF was founded by Mike Danziger, who spent a summer at Hotchkiss teaching. He told me it was that summer that solidified his passion for education and helped him know that was his life's calling.
"In my specific role, I was able to step outside the direct service work with the kids to support the educators in their efforts. Our team (National Partnership for Educational Access) worked with schools, colleges, and nonprofits from all across the country in supporting underrepresented students on a path to and through college. I loved it when a member would call and say, 'I'm having trouble with something -- can you help?' I enjoyed working on behalf of these incredible educators -- whether it be pulling research to help them make a well-informed decision, connecting them with other members who had similar challenges, or by providing and sharing additional resources. I found value in being able to use my skills and talents to help others be effective in their work, and realized the benefits of getting practitioners together. Educators have great collective wisdom, and there is incredible power when you create the conditions for learning and then getting out of their way! I treasured this work. When the position opened at Harvard, it was a great opportunity to expand my contributions while also serving the population I was most passionate about -- school leaders."
Gardner notes the significant changes in educational leadership in the past several years. "School principals are tasked with an increasingly more demanding and difficult job. Fewer people are choosing this career, and those who do are leaving their positions sooner." Typically, Gardner's work on any particular day varies. "When we have programs running, I am busy trying to make sure teams have everything they need logistically. I support the faculty with their presentations and meet with participants. I talk with and listen to practitioners-hearing their challenges as individuals, as schools or districts, and learning about their work, are all critical in evaluating the work we are doing."
A big part of Gardner's job is refining current programs and designing new ones, working with the faculty chairs to think through topics and format, and reflecting on adjustments or changes. "While many of our programs have been around for years, we tweak the content and format constantly, based on needs. We think through the scope and sequence of the topics we cover, the order, what individual sessions look like, and the delivery. We try to strike a balance between giving the best, most relevant content we have with recognizing the needs of practitioners for applicable and timely content. From the moment a participant steps onto campus or begins one of our online programs, we've thought through every detail of their learning. Everything we do is intentionally designed to maximize the learning experience of the participants."
The greatest challenge might be staying relevant and ensuring the programs meet the needs of educators. "Education is changing rapidly, and we work to ensure our programs are providing educators what they need, while staying true to who we are as a school. We challenge ourselves to grow and innovate, while leaning into the things we do best. We try to make our work accessible to as wide an audience as possible." As part of that work, Gardner has worked with faculty to launch three new TPC programs in the past three years: Race, Equity, and Leadership in Schools; Certificate in School Management and Leadership, an online program designed collaboratively with Harvard Business School; and The Principals' Center in Australia: Leadership for School Excellence, a program taught by Harvard faculty and hosted in Sydney, Australia.
"Our work in Professional Education allows us, in a way, to democratize Harvard. Many people will never enroll in one of the degree programs and would nevertheless benefit from the opportunity to engage and learn with the faculty. Through our programs, we connect our faculty directly with the field and allow practitioners the opportunity to learn with them. It is incredibly rewarding to see someone's face the first time they step in one of our classrooms. On the last day, the participants are always wearing their Harvard gear. The practitioners we serve are an incredibly important part of our community. They inform our work and provide valuable feedback, and we take the work very seriously. Especially now in response to COVID-19, we are designing new programs and opportunities to engage with and serve practitioners."
At the end of the day, Gardner says, "There is nothing more valuable than seeing someone have an 'a-ha' moment in their learning. Knowing that someone understands their work in a new way or sees themselves differently as an educator is the ultimate prize for us. I do everything I can to make sure our participants feel connected. Bringing leaders to Harvard, exposing them to outstanding teaching and learning in a strong peer community, and doing it while treating them with great respect, is a privilege. If they leave our programs having not only learned new content, but also feeling more confident and valued, we've done our job."
In reflection, Gardner notes, "Hotchkiss helped to develop my strategic thinking skills. A lot of the time I find myself sorting and organizing large, complex issues and processes and simplifying them into the component parts. We often talk about it as cutting through the noise. That thinking was 100-percent developed at Hotchkiss and has served me very well. My writing skills, the ability to articulate myself clearly, and be able to communicate in a simple, straightforward way have also been tremendously valuable."
Gardner carries with her a sense of service and community, something else she learned at Hotchkiss. "I left knowing how incredibly lucky I was to have had the opportunity to attend, and knew I needed to give back. And possibly, Hotchkiss was most valuable in showing me how to be a leader. I think all people have leadership potential but don't always see themselves that way. Hotchkiss helped me to see my leadership potential, and to understand myself, imbuing me with a deep sense of responsibility to help those around me."