Castilleja’s Dr. Pang Reflects on Leadership As She Embarks on Her 21st Trip to DC

Heather Pang ’84HA is getting ready to lead her 8th grade class to Washington, D.C. This will be her 21st school trip to the Nation’s Capital. At this point, leadership is second nature to Dr. Pang, a Castilleja alumna and longtime teacher.

“At Casti, I’ve been able to lead adults and students and to be mentored by people who lead differently,” says Dr. Pang, Middle School history teacher, 8th Grade Dean, history/social science discipline lead, and school archivist. “Castilleja has given me opportunities to lead that I didn’t even know that I wanted, which is a great thing to say about a workplace.”

After graduating in 1984, Dr. Pang went on to get her Ph.D. in History and returned as a faculty member in 1999. She’s taught here ever since. (She even said her wedding vows at the Casti chapel, perhaps also heralding a symbolic union with the institution.) 

Dr. Pang credits her mentors, including Anne Cameron, former Head of Middle School who recently retired after a 25-year tenure, for teaching her leadership skills. “[Anne Cameron] had a way of saying, ‘Here’s what needs to be done. How would you feel comfortable doing it?’ She was allowing me to figure out how to make it work,” remembers Dr. Pang. 

Dr. Pang took this lesson to heart. “There are many ways for women to lead. It is a learned skill. It can be taught, but you can’t force everyone to do it the same way,” she says. “We need to teach girls, in particular, that because there are multiple kinds of leadership, they can aspire to be leaders without aspiring to be the person in front of the room who is the center of attention.” But, Dr. Pang is quick to add, it must be grounded in a mission. “Leadership without a mission-driven approach is both really hard and probably not worth doing.” And at Castilleja, that mission always comes back to the students.

In her 8th grade history class, Dr. Pang has students tackle a major history research project for National History Day. They pick a topic and figure out the most fitting presentation format, be it a performance, a podcast, a documentary, a website, a research paper, or an exhibit. 

“Because they’ve chosen their own topics, they have a level of curiosity that is much higher than when I pick topics,” says Dr. Pang. “They become experts. Having a chance to be historians rather than just consume and discuss history—to me, that is leadership. The part that amazes me every year is their curiosity and collaboration.” 

At the end of the semester, Dr. Pang asks students to reflect on their learning processes and projects. They also lead conferences with their parents in the spring. “There is a tendency around here to reflect on everything we do, but they start to do it automatically. Every year a parent will say to me, ‘I wish my employees were so self-reflective!’” she says.

Dr. Pang has many female role models. Many of them she’s seen right here at Casti. “I’ve been able to sit at the Chapel Theater, listening to Gloria Steinem and Jane Goodall. Those are the women that inspired me long before I heard them speak. But to be here and to listen to them probably has been one of my highlights of encounters with some of my heroes.”

In recent years, her students also got the opportunity to meet Vice President Kamala Harris and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court, during the 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C. At the time, Ms. Harris was newly elected to the Senate; she invited the students to her office “and we sat on her floor and chatted with her,” says Dr. Pang. Things were a bit more formal with Notorious RBG: they conversed in the judge’s chambers.  

“And I was quite impressed with [Chief Justice] John Roberts when he spoke to the 8th graders about the weight of the job and the functions of the court,” adds Dr. Pang. 

Dr. Pang is looking forward to ushering a third decade of her travels to Washington, D.C. and giving real-life lessons in history, civics, and leadership to her charges, while marveling at it all over again through their eyes.  

“I get to enjoy it on two levels,” she says, “Both as an adult who admires these leaders and as a teacher who knows the students are going to carry this memory with them for a very long time.”