By Dr. Ray Levi

[This is the 12th in a weekly series “When and how does effective leadership make a true difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

Two decades ago, a high school student came into my office asking if he could do his senior project at our day school. Naturally, my immediate response was “of course.” How many 18-year-olds are contemplating a career in Jewish education?

Recently, I spent a day shadowing this former student in his current role as a first year head of school. I watched him energetically greet and engage students in the morning, skillfully build the confidence of parents attending a parent association meeting, guide his administrative team, and problem solve with members of the board. One would hardly have imagined that he was new to this work, yet I knew that for the search committee in his community, choosing a head who only brought divisional leadership experience in a smaller school was a leap of faith.

I think of another head who, by all criteria, has had two very successful years in his first headship – enrollment and retention increases and new fundraising endeavors that are supporting curricular initiatives in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) work with diverse learners, and a deeper, multi-modal Judaic Studies program. Yet, it had taken several years for him to land this position, in part because the professional leadership at his last school had only seen the young educator who had first come to them and had not shifted to integrate his many areas of growth. This difficulty in adjusting our perspectives to see an individual’s learning means that we often overlook some of our most promising new leaders – internal candidates who may lack certain experiences but who bring an understanding of the local community and the culture of the school.

As I talk with head search committees about potential candidates, experience writ large is usually articulated as the most important attribute. I certainly understand the value of quality experience. Yet I might argue that simply having served as a head or in a senior leadership position may not, in of itself, be the most significant selection criterion. The two new heads offer alternative, powerful case studies. Why are they leading effectively? Why are their partnerships with lay leaders working? What is the difference they are making with children, faculty, and parents?

First and most significantly, the strengths of these young heads match the needs of the school. Both schools were seeking passionate and articulate educational leaders who could be the face of the schools in the community and who could guide curricular improvement. This allows lay leaders to see change in critical areas while giving the heads time to hone skills where they have more limited experience. When I spoke with a very happy first year head who had moved across country to a small school with considerable enrollment obstacles, she observed, “The school’s challenges match my interests and strengths. I enjoy focusing on them!”

In Pirkei Avot (IV:13),it is written, “Uproot yourself to live in a community where Torah is studied; do not delude yourself that the Torah will come to you. Only with colleagues can your studies be fortified. Do not rely on your own understanding.” The first year heads described here are alumni of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), the oldest leadership institute of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. In addition to having participated in an intensive program that prepares educators to be heads of school, the cohort-based focus of DSLTI offers these leaders a formal network of colleagues and mentors who are sitting heads to whom they can turn for problem-solving guidance. So often, we speak of the loneliness of the headship. These leaders have been fortified by study in a professional community. Their network helps mitigate isolation and provides opportunities for deeper understanding.

Each of these novice leaders are working with coaches who speak weekly with them, visit the school, and engage periodically with the board chair to gather feedback about the board’s priorities for the head. The schools have invested in the professional growth of their heads, providing support for their steep learning curves to assure that they will greatly expand their expertise.

In each of these cases, the boards considered their decision carefully, consulting in the Jewish educational field about how the lay leadership’s expectations could be realistic for first year heads. Just as the aspiring heads looked for matches with their skill sets, the boards considered their strengths and those of other professional leaders in the schools to assure a smooth transition. In conversations with lay leaders, I have frequently heard, “DSLTI heads have a network to whom they can turn. Lay leaders don’t have that support.” It is comments like these that have inspired DSLTI and The Davidson School to develop our newest leadership institute, expressly for day school lay leaders, designed to bring them (along with their heads) together for regional workshops and school-specific programs – providing opportunities for boards to think strategically about governance issues and build strong partnerships with their professional leaders.

The hiring of new heads of school is difficult work. In a field where there is a constant need for more candidates, I believe there are ways in which we can expand our pool by looking to internal and younger candidates. Placing one’s faith in those that have grown within the system will always be an act of courage, demonstrating the ability of boards to make a leadership difference not only for their own school but for an entire system. If we are going to attract quality talent over the next two decades, aspiring educators must see day schools as places to advance in their careers – all the way to the headship.

Together, through leadership development programs and strategic, courageous planning, we can foster opportunities for emerging leaders. Then, I believe we will find more first-year heads who can say, “The school’s challenges match my interests and strengths. I enjoy focusing on them!”

Dr. Ray Levi is the director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.


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