Putting Your Cards On The Table

We have our first Professional Day coming up in January and our team is preparing for a wonderful day of reflection and collaboration.  As this day approaches, we also find ourselves in the middle of our first round of formal observations.  This is my opportunity to formally visit classrooms, observe teachers in action, reflect with them about their lessons to deepen the dialogue on what we are all here for – teaching and learning.

In the meanwhile, our students are busy working on our digital portfolio project – with a heavy emphasis in Grades K, 5 & 8.  In the older grades, as part of the project, they are beginning to identify and express that which is most important to them at this age and stage.  They are learning to label and share their core beliefs.

There is an exciting conflation of ideas between these activities – reflective practice and digital portfolios – that will serve as the foundation for our upcoming Professional Day. We are going to spend some time identifying our own core beliefs about education – what do we really believe is at the heart of teaching and learning?  Before we can move forward with a shared vision, we have to be clear about what we presently believe to be true.  I am looking forward to candid conversations and surprising connections as we collectively make explicit our implicit beliefs about education.

I am certainly part of the equation and in the spirit of being the first one to jump in the pool, I thought I would use this opportunity to share my vision (at least of this static moment).  To stimulate my thinking, I tried to make explicit my vision of an “MJGDS Graduate” and my vision of “How to Lead a School”.  There could be other prompts, but these were the ones that spoke to me.  Let me share mine first and then provide some closing thoughts after…

Vision of a MJGDS Graduate

I believe that Jewish Day Schools, including the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, should strive to achieve three overarching goals for its graduates:

  • Students will be academically prepared for advanced and rigorous study at the next school of their choice.
  • Students will see education and Jewish education as lifelong endeavors in which they are active participants.
  • Students develop a sense of independence, positive self-esteem, and are encouraged to reach their truest and highest potential.

MJGDS with its commitment to differentiated instruction through an integrated curriculum is uniquely qualified to provide its students with the critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in their high schools of choice upon graduation.  With a proven track record of placement into independent high schools, magnet high schools, and a variety of honors and gifted programs, MJGDS demonstrates that not only does a high-quality Jewish Studies program not hamper students’ secular academics, but rather it provides a unique opportunity to enhance them.  The ability to integrate critical thinking skills across multiple disciplines helps ensure that MJGDS graduates possess a foundation for future academic success and a lifelong love of learning.

American values are not necessarily Jewish values and vice versa.  Integration cannot be imposed by the school; it is constructed by the student.  Jewish education does not reflect a synthesis of the secular and Judaic, but rather an interaction.  Academic excellence within the disciplines only serves as a prerequisite.  Schools have a responsibility to let students struggle with authentic examples of these interactions as they exist in the world around them.  Jewish education has a stake in the choices students make.  Schools must make clear which choices are considered more preferable than others and why.  What those desired choices are and why they should be so desired will naturally differ from school to school.  The basic pedagogic principle, however, ought to be consistent.  Students learn best by doing.  Jewish students learn to make Jewish choices best by choosing.  MJGDS’ commitment to bringing Jewish values and repair of the world to life for our students is reflected through formal Jewish studies, living Jewish ritual practice, and hands-on social programs.  This surely sets the stage for future Jewish connectedness and communal participation on behalf of its graduates.

Vision of How to Lead a School

To be a Head of School is to have primary responsibility for enacting the mission of his/her school as determined by its primary stakeholders: board, parents, professionals, students, donors, and community partners.  Being a Head of School requires infinite pragmatism and the ability to actualize a varied set of skills across ever-shifting contexts.  One has to see both the forest through the trees (focus on the mission) and the trees through the forest (focus on the details) in order to be successful.  The job requires one to be comfortable functioning as a bundle of contradictions – knowing when to listen and when to speak; when to inspire and when to be inspired; when to act and when not acting is the best course of action; when to lead and when to allow others to lead; etc.  Context – and the ability to recognize contextual cues – is paramount.

The context of MJGDS is unique and leading it will be different from leading any other school.  Active listening, an important skill in any school, will be particularly important when coming into an established school with a track record of success and institutional memory.  I  will look to bring all my passion and enthusiasm for education and Judaism to bear in order to maintain all that is already excellent and to explore all that may be possible.

So…for teachers and staff, the questions might be “What would a graduate of your your class and program look like”?  “What is your vision for a Third Grade Jewish Studies Teacher”  “What is your vision for a Librarian?”

For parents, it would be fascinating to know what their vision for their children’s educations would be.  It would also be fascinating to have parents share their “Vision for How to Be a Day School Parent”.

For students, it would be a exciting to hear their visions for their own educations and how they envision what it means to be a student.

Our teachers and staff will have their opportunity to work on these vision statements come January (hint, hint!).  But I encourage everyone and anyone – parent, student, lay leader, donor, community stakeholder – to spend a few minutes thinking about your dreams and hopes for the school and for your role in the school.  And then take that extra step and SHARE it – post a comment, send me an email, pop by my office for a cup of coffee, raise a flare, anything – because the first step in sorting and organizing our cards into a shared vision of the future is to put them on the table.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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