Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Gwen Coffey

The Ori Learning Leadership Spotlight Series is dedicated to showcasing outstanding educational leaders who are making a positive impact in their respective districts and the education world.


Dr. Gwendolyn Coffey currently serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Special Education in Katy ISD, Texas.

Education has been her focus for nearly 25 years across a variety of levels, positions, and districts in the Lone Star State. She has served as a general and special education teacher, a counselor, and administrator at both the secondary and elementary levels, and as an instructor for adults at the collegiate level.

Dr. Coffey’s responsibilities as a special education department leader for a large school district include equipping campus staff with research-based knowledge and resources and aligning and implementing practices that ensure the efficient operation of more than 500 employees, multiple budget streams, and district-wide educational resources, all in service of students with disabilities.

In our interview, Dr Coffey discusses the role of mentorship in her journey to becoming an educational leader; the power of pivoting when faced with challenges; and the importance of educational equity.

How did you become an educational leader?

I began my career in education in 1997 as a general and special education teacher in elementary and secondary schools. The idea of becoming an educational leader wasn’t initially on my horizon, and it wasn’t until a mentor recognized leadership potential within me that my trajectory took a turn. They saw something unique in my approach and capabilities and encouraged me to consider having a broader impact within the education system.

Despite my initial reservations, their belief in my ability to make a difference ignited a shift in my career aspirations. Supported and mentored by this influential figure, I transitioned into educational leadership. My journey from classroom educator to educational leader underscores the transformative power of mentorship: the belief and support of that mentor became a catalyst for my growth as a leader within the educational landscape.

What's a lesson about leadership that you've learned or been reminded of recently?

Never underestimate the power of the pivot as a tool for leadership. I was reminded of this recently while leading a cross-functional team on a challenging project. While I had a well-thought-out plan initially, unforeseen obstacles arose which required a shift in strategy.Above all, this experience highlighted for me the importance of being adaptive as a leader. Effective leadership demands not only a clear vision, but also the capacity to adjust in response to changing circumstances (and, conversely, rigid adherence to a predetermined course can impede progress). This includes being open to feedback and insights from others, and it can come into use when navigating uncertainties and having to make informed decisions on the fly.

What's one book that has had a profound impact on you as a leader? Why?

“Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek. Sinek’s exploration of leadership through the lens of biology and human behavior struck a chord with me, in particular the concept of leaders placing the needs of their team members before their own. He argues that great leaders foster a sense of belonging and prioritize the well-being of their teams, which in turn builds trust, enables collaboration, and leads to greater success overall. Reading this book influenced my leadership style by encouraging a shift from a transactional approach to a more empathetic and people-centered one: it reinforced the idea that genuine leadership is about serving others and creating a culture where individuals feel valued and motivated. The book is a touchstone for fostering a positive and inclusive leadership mindset. Reading this book influenced my leadership style by encouraging a shift from a transactional approach to a more empathetic and people-centered one: it reinforced the idea that genuine leadership is about serving others and creating a culture where individuals feel valued and motivated. The book is a touchstone for fostering a positive and inclusive leadership mindset.

So far in your career, what have you found most challenging as a leader?

One of the most challenging aspects of being an educational leader is navigating the ever-evolving landscape of education. The field is subject to constant changes in curriculum, technology, and teaching methodologies, and keeping up with these changes and ensuring that educational practices align with the needs of students, advancements in pedagogy, and societal expectations is uniquely challenging. The multifaceted nature of education, coupled with external pressures and the responsibility for shaping the future of students, makes for a demanding and dynamic role. It forces you to continually adapt, collaborate, and innovate in order to overcome these challenges and provide the best possible learning experience for students.

Of all the challenges the educational world faces today, what is one area you are most passionate about and would like to make an impact in?

Educational equity is what I am most passionate about. This includes addressing issues such as unequal access to quality teachers, advanced courses, educational technology, and extracurricular activities. It’s not just about equal distribution: it’s about recognizing and rectifying systemic inequalities that hinder certain groups from reaching their full potential. Closing the achievement gap is a crucial aspect of educational equity and requires targeted efforts to support students who may face additional challenges due to socioeconomic factors, cultural differences, learning disabilities, or other circumstances. By ensuring that all students have access to the necessary resources and support systems, we can work towards a more inclusive and equitable education system which promotes these values through its curricula. This is what ultimately contributes to a more representative and enriching learning experience for students from all backgrounds.

What are you most proud of during your time as a leader?

As an educational leader, my proudest achievement lies in the fact that people are willing to place their trust in me and follow me. Earning their trust and respect has been a result of fostering open communication, promoting a culture of inclusivity, and demonstrating a genuine commitment to their growth and well-being. I believe my ability to lead by example and inspire others to contribute their best efforts has created a cohesive and high-performing team. Being a leader who is not just acknowledged but actively followed speaks to a shared commitment to a common purpose and the belief that our team can collectively achieve meaningful and positive outcomes in the field of education. I am the proudest of the team we have developed over time and the ongoing impact of their collective leadership.

Finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

If I could offer one piece of advice to a young leader, it would be to prioritize continuous learning and self-reflection. The landscape of leadership is dynamic, and being open to new ideas, perspectives, and skills is crucial for personal and professional growth. Embrace opportunities for learning, whether through formal education, mentorship, or experiential learning. Seek out feedback from peers, mentors, and team members, and use it as a tool for improvement. A commitment to continuous learning not only enhances your leadership abilities but also fosters adaptability in the face of evolving challenges.