Is my school any better now that I’m a doctor?

Because isn’t that the only question that really matters to anyone outside my family?

Yes, I take a tremendous amount of personal pride in having reached this academic achievement.  It took me 8 years (6 of them ABD) to successfully defend my Ed.D. dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary – which was accomplished (pending minor revisions) this past Monday.  During that time, I helped found one Jewish day school and assumed the headship of a second.  When I started, my wife and I were a recently married couple living in an apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  When I finished, we were a family of four living in a house in Jacksonville, Florida.  But what matter does it make outside of my own world?  My parents are kvelling, but am I a better head of school having gone through this experience?  Are the schools I have been blessed with the opportunity to run any better off?  (And, therefore, would I recommend that other heads of school, principals, etc., pursue doctorates of their own for the purpose of improving their craft?)

I can only blog for myself, but as challenging as the process was, the answer has been an unequivocal, “yes”!

My research questions were how do theories of educational leadership help understand the founding of a new Jewish day school, and how does the head of school’s understanding and implementation of leadership theories impact the founding and growth of a new Jewish day school.  You can see that I had the opportunity to make my work the subject of my doctoral research and, therefore, I was not only able to further my own education, but (hopefully) I was able to contribute to the school(s) I was employed to head.  Had I chosen a different research topic, perhaps, I would feel differently, but I’m not entirely sure.  The discipline of doing doctoral research in education – the books I have read, the methodology I have mastered, the academic vernacular I have had to learn to write in, the necessity to defend my work to tenured professors of education – all of this has undoubtedly caused me to reflect more deeply on practice and, thus, made me a better practitioner.

Once my dissertation is published, I may (or may not) choose to edit it into an academic article or another vehicle for publication.  But because my work actually included an investigation as to to the worthiness of academic degrees in being a head of school, I thought I would share a snippet of my research to close this post:

The importance of credentials  

There was no doubt that my credentials, primarily being an alumnus of the American Jewish University (then called the University of Judaism), a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and a member of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, played a significant role in my hire (as founding head of school).  The hope of the search committee was that I would bring best practices learned from those schools and programs to my job so that the school could be successfully founded.  To the degree that I was able to utilize my leadership skills, I believe this hypothesis has been proven accurate time and time again.  I have little doubt that without the training I received, particularly the experiences of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, I would have fallen on my face from day one.

My experiences were largely spent trying to move the school’s leadership and to understand and endorse the best practices I believed were, in fact, ‘best’ because of what I had learned through my academic and professional programs.  Founding committees should rightly consider the importance of academic credentials and that programs such as DSLTI should continue to be promoted and taken seriously.  There are no guarantees that it will take the specific skills mastered in the specific toolbox of each academic or professional program provides to successfully perform the job of founding a new school.  It is, however, reasonable to assume that the more skills available to the practitioner, the higher the likelihood is for success to occur.  Both the literature review and the data have clearly demonstrated how educational leadership is as much about knowing which skills to apply when then it is about mastering one best specific set of skills.

I do think it is reasonable to make a few conclusions about how academic and professional programs designed to prepare people for the headship could increase the odds for success.  There is great value to emphasizing real-world and real-work situations.  DSLTI does a terrific job presenting mini-case studies for fellows to struggle through in a learning environment prior to confronting them in the workplace.  Mentoring and coaching are essential components.  Opportunities to shadow and reflect with experienced heads would be useful as well.  It is impossible to replicate and role-play every situation that could occur in the headship, but it is possible to shift the emphasis from theory to practice, particularly in professional preparatory programs.  This also holds true for the schools.  New schools and schools preparing for new heads should seriously consider building coaching into the normal practice of professional development.


Discuss. 🙂

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

Jon’s #NoOfficeDay – The Results Show

You can read, here, all about the history and reasons for the #NoOfficeDay I took this week at our school.

So…how was it?

It was super fun!

So much fun that I was telling someone that evening that I didn’t want to go back to work the next day because I knew I’d have to make it Jon’s #OfficeDayToMakeUpForNoOfficeDay!

But it was well worth it!  It was so great to spend the day where the real action is – in the classrooms and hallways and lunch rooms and parking lots.  Will it have the desired carryover?  I am really going to try.  If your budget is the most honest reflection of your values, than your schedule has to be a close second.  It is time to put my time where my mouth is.

This is the finished product – Jon’s #NoOfficeDay – The Movie!  Thanks to Talie Zaifert, our Admissions & Marketing Director, for the iMovie tutorial.  My goal was to use this opportunity, not only to get out of the office, but to role model the attempt to master new 21st century learning tools.  This was my first attempt at using a Flip camera (hence the horrible camerawork) and using iMovie – so all mistakes belong to me alone.

Thanks to all the other agencies and school leaders for inspiring me to join them outside the office!

Enjoy!  (And you might want to take a motion sickness pill…)



The Inclusive Jewish Day School

While the rest of the country is preparing to head “Back to School” after Labor Day, we are completing our SECOND WEEK of school already!

We have lots of exciting things going on:

  • You can check out the ongoing saga of the “Frognapping of Froggy Mitzhopper” by visiting our website and clicking on the videos here. (I think my acting chops are rounding into fine form!)
  • The MJGDS Marlins are about to make history by playing the first away game in our school’s 50-year history!  You can order booster shirts by emailing the School Office ( and can read more about the Marlins on the PE Blog here.
  • Singapore Math Parent Night will take place on September 12 at 7:00 PM.  You can read more about our philosophical shift towards a new math curriculum here and about our move to Singapore Math here.
  • As announced in last week’s blog, my #NoOfficeDay will take place on September 13th.  I am excited to spend my day with teachers and students and I look forward to blogging about my experience.

But what I really want to write about this week is a remarkable development taking place within our school – our growing ability to become the inclusive Jewish day school our community and families deserve.  I wrote the following in a prior blog post at the end of last year:

“We have also taken great strides in our outreach to special needs families and in our current practice in putting together processes for dealing with the mechanics of delivering services.  We take it as a positive sign that KoleinuJax has gifted us (in collaboration with Jewish Family & Community Services and the Jewish Community Foundation of Northeast Florida) the monies necessary to expand our program next year by allowing us to hire and train additional support staff in classes where we have children with special needs.”

We are two weeks in and “shofar so good”!  (I only have until the High Holidays to enjoy my favorite pun…sorry in advance!)  We have, shofar (see how much fun that is!), sent out assistant teachers to a Duval County training and hosted a training of our own for our entire faculty.  We are presently meeting with prospective special needs educators for the purpose of scheduling observations of our classes and, then, targeting training specific to the needs of our children and our teachers.  We have been meeting and communicating more frequently with parents of special needs students in our school with the goal of being as proactive as we can as sacred partners.  And finally, thanks in large part to the hard work of two parents in our school, we are preparing to become eligible this month to receive McKay Scholarships.

The McKay Scholarship Program (according to its website) is defined as such:

“Florida’s school choice programs ensure that no child will be left behind by allowing parents to choose the best educational setting—public or private—for their child.  The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program provided over 22,000 Florida students with special needs the opportunity to attend a participating private school during the 2010-11 school year.  The McKay Scholarships Program also offers parents public school choice.  A parent of an eligible special needs student may choose to transfer the student to another public school.”

The Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is committed to doing its part to serve the special needs children of the Jewish Community of Jacksonville.  Our eligibility to participate in McKay signals our desire to be in the conversation as a possible “best educational setting” for Jewish children with special needs.  It does not mean that we are automatically capable of handling each and every situation appropriately.  It does not mean that we are, in fact, the “best educational setting” for each Jewish child with special needs.  It is hard to imagine any (private) school that can possibly claim to be that – there is way too much variation in resources, mission and children for any one school to be the “best educational setting” for every child.  It does mean, however, that we have elevated ourselves into the conversation – we are invested in being capable to work with families to determine if we are the best setting, to prepare a structure for children to be successful when they enroll, to establish processes to evaluate our successes and failures, and to maintain healthy communication to take next steps as they occur.

McKay provides families who are usually already burdened with the additional expenses associated with special needs with funding that could make or break the difference between being able to afford private school tuition or not.  It is our sincerest hope that IF Jewish families in Jacksonville would like their children to have a Jewish day school education and IF our school is capable of meeting their needs, that McKay will allow those families a choice they may never have had available until now.

Disclaimer: My wife is a special needs educator whose academic and professional experience is with “special education inclusion”.

I recently reviewed my research in this area and I think this link, here, from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) provides good definitions, a concise history of inclusion, decent explanations of federal law, a fair framing of the debate between “full inclusion” and “resource room”, and examples of academic research.  I encourage you to read the whole thing.  But for my purposes, let me quote a few highlights:

Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend.  It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students).  Proponents of inclusion generally favor newer forms of education service delivery.

This would be an accurate expression of our attitude and aspirations for the children in our school with special needs.  (Please understand that GIFTEDNESS is a SPECIAL NEED.  “Inclusion” includes our philosophy of how we strive to meet the needs of gifted students as well.)

I am being this descriptive because I want to address a common concern – how will having special needs students in my child’s class impact the experience ofmy child?  Or, won’t the teacher have to spend so much time focusing on the special needs students that s/he won’t be able to provide my child with the individualized attention we expect in private school?

First the research…

There is no evidence that the inclusion of special needs students has any negative impact on the academic experience of the other students if the classroom is structured and staffed appropriately.  This is why the conversation about whether or not a school is the “best educational setting” is so important.  We have to be honest with parents about our resources and abilities.  We should never bring in a child with needs we are not confident we can meet – that risks harm to the child and to the class. Each child and each situation is different and is handled case by case.  But with the right attitude, support, and training – we are moving to be more capable with more students.

So if there is no impact on the academic experience of the other students…might there be other extremely important and positive outcomes of having special needs students in the classroom?  YES!

While researchers are cautious in their conclusions, there are some positive signs.  In particular, students in special education and regular education showed several positive changes, including:

  • A reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased comfort and awareness (Peck et al., 1992);
  • Growth in social cognition (Murray-Seegert,1989);
  • Improvement in self-concept of non-disabled students (Peck et. al., 1992);
  • Development of personal principles and ability to assume an advocacy role toward their peers and friends with disabilities;
  • Warm and caring friendships (Bogdan and Taylor, 1989).

Do these not seem like the kinds of values a Jewish day school ought to live by?  Would this not represent our highest aspirations for the moral development of our children? Does this not seem like a good way of making menchen?

We have a passion for meeting the needs of the Jewish children of Jacksonville – special or otherwise.  One doesn’t have to choose between meeting the needs of special needs children or the highly gifted (or the overwhelming majority of children who are neither). Our work with special needs children and their families does not detract from our work with all of our other children and families – it enhances it.

When my daughter graduates (please God many years from now) from the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School and I watch her walk across the bimah to receive her diploma, my wife and I will surely be proud of her academic achievements (whatever they may be). But we will be even more proud of who she will have become having learned to love and respect all her classmates no matter who they are, what they know or can do, or however quirky their personality traits might be.  And we will be blessed for having had the ability to have her educated in a place that doesn’t require families to have to choose between.


Jon’s #NoOfficeDay

On September 13th, I will officially participate in No Office Day!

David Truss first posted a blog here, describing in words and pictures his experience with a “No Office” Day and challenging the rest of us principals and heads to do the same.  This challenge has been picked up by PEJE, whose guest blogger on August 19th, Rabbi Shira Leibowitz issued a similar challenge to Jewish day school principals and heads here – officially declaring that we should:

“Choose a day between September 12-15th to close your office and spend the entire day with students and teachers: supporting, observing teaching, and participating in learning activities.”

PEJE was so invested in seeing us take this opportunity that they went ahead and incentivized our participation by holding a contest through their PEJE Facebook page…first five principals to commit gets a free Flip camera to document their “No Office” Day.  Guess who was #2 and got himself a camera? I received it this week (thanks Ken Gordon @PEJEjds!) and officially blocked off the 13th of September as my official “No Office” Day!

How will I spend my day?

First off, I know how I won’t spend my day…in MEETINGS!  Woo-hoo!  My calendar has been cleared and blocked off – no parents, no vendors, no donors, no board members, no staff…a complete day dedicated to being with teachers and students in their “natural setting” (i.e. NOT my office).  This, alone, should make it amongst the best days ever.

This is a great year for me to have this day because I have already made a commitment to do more teaching.  I presently teach two classes in the Day School.  I teach tefillah (prayer) to Grade One three afternoons a week and I am teaching a nine-week seminar on the same topic three mornings a week in Grade Eight.  I am finished with my first week of teaching and I am thrilled to have made the decision.  And the fact that my daughter, Eliana, is in Grade One allows me the pleasure of teaching my own daughter and the privilege of using gratuitous photos of her on my professional blog…like this one:

Not having come from the ranks of teaching (the full-time, all day variety – I do have a fair amount of teaching experience) into the headship, it is crucial to my ability to serve as the “Instructional Leader” for my faculty (one of the many hats a head wears) that I establish and maintain credibility as an actual teacher.  Even if I had been a full-time teacher, it would likely remain just as important to keep those skills fresh.  It is common to lots of professions that have administration as a rung on the career ladder – the better you are at doing the work, the farther away from it you get “promoted”.  I love working with kids…I’m pretty good at it…and I rarely have the opportunity to do it anymore!

So thank you “No Office” Day.  Thank you for giving me the extra push to do what I should have had the time management skills to do on my own.  Thank you for the invitation to remind myself of what it is truly all about – teachers and students; learning and growing; hearts and minds.

If you want to find me on September 13th, don’t bother trying to find me in my office.  The door will be shut and the lights will be out.  If you want to find this principal on his “No Office” Day, head for where the real action is – the classrooms.

Looking forward to posting my experiences in a few weeks!


Coming Attractions

Where did summer go?!

For many of you, it is still going strong, and to be honest when I consider that I haven’t worn socks since the last day of school, my summer is still going as well.  But despite the summery feelings all abound, for those of us in schools…you can kind of feel the tug of the upcoming school year becoming noticeable.  Partially due to our early (relative to the rest of the country) start…let’s just say “Back to School” isn’t just a tag-line for sales, it’s very much a’coming!

So, in the heart of July, perhaps with the midpoint of summer vacation upon us, I thought I’d take a moment and tease some of the coming attractions that will make next year, our best year yet!  Cue the bullet points!

  • We have now done more than create the postcard.  All of our K-5 General Studies Teachers attended a week-long training in June for the purpose of beginning to transition our students from our traditional math curriculum to Singapore Math.  It just so happened to coincide with my family trip to Las Vegas, so the time zone allowed me to receive all sorts of emails and texts from our teachers during their training.  It is a very exciting program and offers our students a wonderful opportunity to learn Math “as a second language”.  You can look forward to Parent Information Nights, additional professional development sessions for teachers, “Not your mother’s math homework anymore” conversations, and most importantly – students who develop amazing critical thinking skills in mathematics.
  • We did it!  We have finally created our own mascot – signaling our official entry into the world of Middle School Athletics!  Thanks to Coach Goldman for motivating our students and making the arrangements.  We look forward to at least two or three sports launching next year to compete against local schools. T-Shirts and other swag will be available for purchase next year with all proceeds going to support our new teams.  Whether you are a player, a parent or just an MJGDS booster – be sure to show your support for the Marlins next year!
  • Enrollment for our new, enhanced Kindergarten Enrichment Program is beginning – as it dawns on parents that school is coming – to come in.  We are very excited to be able to offer for the same fee as last year an enriched program for our Kindergartners from 1:45 – 3:45 PM.  Under the direction of Mrs. Kristi O’Neill, our Kindergartners will have an opportunity for free play, snack, homework assistance, socialization and a special enrichment project.  Parents can sign up for the entire year or for whatever makes sense for your schedules.  We expect this class to take off once we get started , but you don’t have to wait.  Please contact the School Office with questions or to sign up.

  • This one is just a teaser (we’ll see who’s paying attention!)…but our school is working behind the scenes with national foundations, grant-makers, day school networks, etc., with the goal of announcing our hosting of a 21st Century Learning Conference next year here at our own school!  Stay tuned!
  • Our year will culminate, of course, in a once-in-a-generation celebration of our school’s 50th Anniversary!  Blogs, announcements, committees, advertisements, etc., are all in the planning stages to ensure this event is everything our school and community deserve it to be.  If you are interested in being involved (in any way!), please let us know.  In the meanwhile, save the date for the weekend of May 4 – 6 as we celebrate the excellent 50 years that have been and prepare for the next trailblazing 50 years to come.
Wow.  We’ve got a lot of excitement to come next year!  Still sad about summer ending?

I’m off to New York City on Monday morning for a Schechter Day School Network Board Retreat.  (I’ll be back Monday night – a nice perk of East Coast living!)  I think I will turn my attention next week to discussing all matters Schechter.  It has been a very interesting year and the Network has some exciting plans of its own…


And the winner is…all of us! (Part II)

It was wonderful to hear the positive feedback from both parents AND teachers to the publication of the results from our First Annual Parent Survey (found here)!

Continuing with the theme of transparency, I want to now follow up and share results and ideas about how our school performed on its standardized testing.  (We take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS)).  I actually find the Wikipedia description easier to understand than the company’s own website summary.)  I began this conversation here during the time we were actually taking the tests.  I strongly encourage you to reread (or read for the first time) my philosophy on test-taking and how we planned on both sharing the tests with parents and utilizing the data in our decision-making.

We have already gone ahead and done that which we said we would – mail out to parents all test results which fully resembled the children who took them AND met privately with parents whose children’s results required expert contextualization.  All conversations we have had with parents about testing have been fruitful.  All the data has been tabulated, filed, and prepared for dissemination with next year’s faculty who look forward to utilizing it to help each student in our school reach their maximum potential.

I wasn’t prepared to show grade and school results – not because I was concerned we might not have done well (but if I don’t show them again next year, you’ll know why!  🙂 ) – but because I really do believe that individual growth is the most appropriate metric for our school to use.  However, after our 21st Century Learning Consultant, Siliva Tolisano, put together a few infographics about our results, one was so striking that I changed my mind.  Here’s why:

My thinking has been influenced by conversations I have been having with colleagues about the different challenges Jewish day schools often have from their secular private school (and/or magnet and/or charter and/or suburban public school) neighbors.  I sometimes think biggest difference comes down to a philosophy of admissions.  Most Jewish day schools attempt to cast the widest net possible, believing it is our mission to provide a Jewish day school education to all who may wish one.  We do not, often, restrict admission to a subset of the population who score X on an admissions test and we do not, often, adjust birthday cutoffs to maximize academic achievement. However, the schools who we are most often compared to in terms of academic achievement often do one or both.  Then, if you factor in whether or not you exempt special needs students from the testing and whether or not you explicitly teach to the test, you may have quite an uneven playing field to say the least.

To reframe and reset the discussion:

Jewish day schools have an inclusive admissions policy, but are expected to compete equally with elite private (and magnet and charter and suburban public) schools who have exclusive admissions policies (or homogeneous populations).

In light of all of that – if a Jewish day school with an inclusive admissions policy, a non-exempted special needs population, and a commitment to “not teach to test” – if that kind of school could demonstrate that it was achieving secular academic excellence on par with elite schools; schools who advertise as “grade ahead schools” and often use the birthday cutoff as a means to achieving it, well to me that would be news worth sharing.  And so…without further adieu:

The bottom line of this graphic is…each grade in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School is operating at least a grade and a half ahead in core secular academics.  There are grades whose averages are significantly higher than that, but let the boldface sink in for a bit.  Too much time dedicated to Jewish Studies?  Nope – a high-quality Jewish Studies programs enhances secular academics.  Too much time dedicated to Skyping or Tweeting?  Nope – a 21st century learning paradigm not only impacts student motivation, but leads to higher student achievement.

I can sense the tone of triumphalism in my writing and, although I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for their achievements, I do not wish to sound boastful.  But with state of Jewish day school education being what it is, when there is good news to share…share it one must!  Yes, this is just one isolated case of one Jewish day school at one moment of time – our school has to continue to excel year after year in order for the data to take on statistical significance.  [And there are amazing Jewish day schools achieving excellence throughout North America – I am a zealot to the cause and freely admit it!]

I firmly believe that Jewish day schools with dual-curricula and 21st century pedagogy and philosophy produce unmatched excellence in secular academics.  Here in our school, we will have to prove it year after year, subject after subject, and student after student in order to live up to our mutually high expectations, but what an exciting challenge it shall be coming to school each day to tackle!

So…in Part I we discussed parents and in Part II we discussed students.  Coming next week in Part III?  The teachers.  Stay tuned!

And the winner is…all of us! (Part I)

This will be Part I of making sure we keep the transparency promises we made back at the beginning of this extraordinary year…first up: The Annual Parent Survey!

A couple of months ago, parents in our school had an opportunity to provide anonymous feedback through an online survey.  We anticipate this being a yearly occurrence and an important one at that.  Beyond the opportunities I have had to meet collectively and privately with families all throughout the year; beyond the admissions and exit interviews performed by our Admissions Director; beyond the feedback picked up at Parent-Teacher Conferences; even beyond all the fun things that get discussed in the parking lot – it is important to also offer a totally anonymous opportunity for parents to share their thoughts and assess the school.  I look forward making this a yearly event AND to begin to chart our results over time to even better assess our performance.

Parents were asked to fill out separate surveys for multiple children in the school and we received back responses from 55% of current students in the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  Without further ado…let’s begin!

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, responses are skewed towards the younger grades not only because that’s were most of our students are presently located, but also because of the enthusiasm newer families often bring (not that we’re not all enthusiastic!).  OK – so we know who took the survey…how did we do?!

Let’s first look at the BIG PICTURE:

That’s pretty great!  On scale of 1-10, our average score wound up being 7.7.  We’d love to be a 10 out of 10 for every parent in each facet of schooling, but this both tells us we are doing pretty well and that we have some room to grow.  Let’s dig deeper.  Next up…Communication.

When it comes to communication, we have pretty high marks altogether – with the highest marks coming in communication via electronic means and the lowest marks coming in providing opportunities for parents to be involved in student learning.  We look forward to new ideas for improving parent partnerships coming from this data.   Let’s move on and look at our Administration.

You should know that I am engaged in my own evaluative process – this data along with surveys from my teachers and colleagues as well as my own self-evaluation are being compiled as we speak.  I appreciate the high marks, but recognize that I still have a lot of room to grow as a school leader and the candor many of you provided in your open-ended responses will be a useful tool towards that end.  Although it is still a fairly high number (7.62) [Don’t be fooled by the X-axis!], I will work harder next year to ensure there is even greater confidence in our application of the student code of conduct.  And now most importantly…academics!

This first part is non-subject specific:

(Hopefully you can read it or you can blow it up if it is a tad small…)

Our highest marks in this area came in 21st century technology…this is no surprise with the amount of emphasis we put on it.  I was pleased by the high mark (7.77) for individualized attention.  One area of (relative) concern and something I expect to be much higher next year is teaching in different styles (6.98).  Differentiated instruction is a core philosophy of our program and I expect this number to rise and rise each year.

Next up!  General Studies:

Overall, we scored very well.  Where public perception is slightly lower, we find one of those happy confluences where our own internal assessment mirrors the parents.  Our lowest marks in General Studies came in Math (6.71) and Science (6.87). With a move to Singapore Math next year, we fully expect that number to climb.  We also intend to provide more regular Science Lab opportunities to children in the elementary school next year.  This should help in that area as well.

We will be revisiting General Studies academics in next week’s Part II…when I will be sharing how we did in our standardized testing this year and now to best understand the results.  (Spoiler Alert: We did great!)

Here are the results for Jewish Studies, Resources and Extracurricular activities:

We are thrilled with high marks for Jewish Studies and our wonderful PE, Music and Art departments!  Field trips and service learning scored excellently as well.  Our lowest mark was in Afterschool Activities (6.19).  We are hoping that two new programs we are launching next year – an Enhanced Kindergarten Program and a new partnership with the JCA (that’s right…stay tuned!) – will help to even better serve this population.

And so there you have it.  Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys.  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses.  They added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  But please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern as we use this data to make enhancements and improvements headed into next year.  By the by, we are pleased with how well satisfied our parents are with how the school is going…but be assured, just like with everything else, we fully expect these numbers to be (say it with me!) just “a floor, but no ceiling”!

Mentor in a Speedo

I have seen a lot of tweets, likes, and comments to this March 30th NY Times op-ed article, “What I Learned at School” by Marie Myung-OK Lee.  In light of the heated national conversation about education and teachers currently taking place – those of us who care about education feel compelled to make the case in a variety of ways.  The most personal way is to share stories.  Sharing stories is amongst the most unique and special things human beings have to offer each other and the world.  I was asked this week to share a story about a day school teacher who touched my life…which I cannot do because I am not a product of the day school world.  [See my prior blog posts here and here for a more intimate look at my Jewish upbringing.  See here for my thoughts on current events.]  But I have been deeply influenced a particular mentor in the field of Jewish education and I thought in the spirit of the moment, I would write about that relationship.

[As a side experiment, I have looked up my mentor on Google, but have not contacted him in at least five years or more.  I’ll be curious to see if this blog post finds him…and even more curious if he appreciates the portrait I have painted!  In the spirit of transparency, I’m taking risks and naming names!  If I hear anything, I’ll update the post.]

[As an aside to the side experiment, I am going to forgo blogging convention and not muddle the portrait with a zillion links to the websites of all the organizations I am about to shamelessly namedrop.  They can all be researched should you wish to know more.]

[As a postscript to the aside to the side experiment, I’ll return next week with some thoughts about adventures in standardized testing and getting ready for Passover…probably not in the same post.]


I have many fond memories of my foremost professional mentor, Dr. David Ackerman, but unfortunately the one that leaps out is the image of him sporting a Speedo at the pool or on the beach during the two and a half weeks we traveled together in Israel during the summer of 1998.  At the time, I was the Director of Teen Programs for the Bureau of Jewish Education-Greater Los Angeles, and as such responsible for the BJE-LA Ulpan Summer-in-Israel program.  Dr. Ackerman was my immediate supervisor at the Bureau – a relationship that had already repeated itself in a remarkable variety of work and educational settings over just three years.

My first memory of Dr. Ackerman was on my tour of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where I was applying for a Masters in Education.  Truthfully, I was really only there because I was already in town applying for the same degree at Hebrew Union College (HUC).  Not to repeat myself and to make an exceedingly long story as short as I can, I had been raised in the Reform community of Fremont – a suburban town in the East Bay of Northern California.  My parents were (and are) committed liberal Jews who prided themselves on synagogue affiliation, attendance and participating, but found ritual practice largely unnecessary.  I followed in their footsteps as an active member of our NFTY chapter, avid Reform summer camp attendee, and then as I moved into college, Reform summer camp staff person.  During my senior year at UC Berkeley, I decided that I enjoyed engaging in Jewish activities not only during the summer and that perhaps it would be a fulfilling career indeed to become a Jewish professional.  After a wilderness year, I decided that Jewish Education was the career for me, and then began to think about graduate school.  Hebrew Union College was the logical destination as the Reform movement’s graduate school, so application and interviews for HUC-LA were made.  It was only as an afterthought that I decided to visit LA’s other Jewish seminary, the University of Judaism which was more closely aligned with Conservative Judaism.

And so, straight out of mid-90’s liberal Northern California, I arrived on the campus of the University of Judaism.  I went small “c” conservative by wearing actual pants, putting my long hair back into a ponytail, and opting for studs instead of hoops in my multi-pierced ears.  I had only been paying mild attention to events until it was time for my one-on-one with Dr. David Ackerman.  He was in his first year as the Dean of the UJ’s Fingerhut School of Education at the time and what struck me most in our first meeting and has stayed with me ever since is his incredible capacity for inflicting calm.  His demeanor is almost always mild-mannered and unassuming.  I would learn later as colleagues that there is a degree calculation in his affect, but that came later.  In his calm way, in the course of a thirty-minute meeting, he convinced me to leave my comfortable Reform surroundings behind and embrace the risk, challenge, and excitement of living and learning a completely different way of being Jewish.

Over the next five years, Dr. Ackerman was there to mentor me academically, personally, and professionally.  I was the only student in my class to have Dr. Ackerman as his or her student teaching advisor.  I was placed in the school he had most recently run before assuming the deanship.  As I struggled to fit in at the UJ, he was there to smooth out my many, many rough edges.  He used to regale us with stories of crazy students and out of control parents from his former professional life and again and again impressed upon us the need for maintaining outward calm in the face of all sorts of chaos.

We were the only class that Dr. Ackerman recruited and graduated in his too-brief time at the UJ.  Fortunately, for me, upon leaving the UJ, Dr. Ackerman took a position at the BJE in LA and promptly hired me in my first full-time position in the field.  And that is how I found myself amused to see my mentor strutting on the beach in Tel Aviv in a Speedo.  It is also how I got new insights as to how he really thought and worked.  I got to see moments of candor, episodes of anger, and the occasional profane word or story.  They were all object lessons that I would try to bring into my own work in the field.

Time went on and I eventually left the BJE to move to New York and began the career that led me here to Jacksonville, with five wonderful years in Las Vegas sandwiched between.  Occasionally during my time in New York, I would check in with Dr. Ackerman – David, I guess by now, for advice on this issue or the other.  He helped me decide on my next educational step and even provided thoughts on possible dissertation topics.  If I ever write a book, he is sure to get a shout-out on the dedication page.

We have very different personalities to be sure.  But whenever in my career I am confronted with a difficult parent or a challenging student or concern over enrollment bubbles up or when board members worry over lack of fundraising (none of which, of course, happen here!), there is a piece of Dr. David Ackerman instilled in me that allows me to channel an outward calm that would otherwise not be there.  It doesn’t always come through and it doesn’t always work, but when it does, I think about him and silently thank him.  And hope he has moved on to more appropriate swimwear.

Watching Wisconsin


I have been suffering through allergies here in my new hometown of Jacksonville and the sleepless nights have provided me a window to watch an inordinate amount of cable news.  The budget fight in Wisconsin, whatever you may think of it, has shined a spotlight on the teaching profession in America and I have been astounded by the degree of hostility being displayed towards teachers and the fundamental misconceptions of what teachers actually do.

I am biased.

I am married to a public school teacher.  My mother was a public school teacher.  I went to public schools and attended a public university with the intent of becoming a public school teacher.  But as much as this particular debate is to do with the costs of public education, the brush being painted of the teaching profession tars all – public, private, charter, and alternative.  And I think it does real damage.

To me this is not terribly complicated or at all political.  If we ever want to get serious about new forms of education (not reform, but new forms) we will need to hold the teaching profession in high regard.  I don’t know how tearing it down can lead to anything productive.  No one goes into education for the money.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-compensated educators (and by the by, why would there be something wrong with that?), but those whose sole purpose in choosing a profession is making money surely do not choose to be teachers.

Teaching is noble, but not all teachers may be noble.  I am not naive.  There should be accountability in teaching and I don’t pretend to know how to address that in public schools with union contracts because that simply is not my world.  It is hard enough to do in a private school.  But I do know that whatever legitimate frustration there is about a lack of accountability in the public sector ought not delegitimate the entire profession.

I wrote in an early blog post of my belief that teaching is a sacred profession.  I mean that literally; I believe that teaching is a religious act.  I believe this to be true of all teaching – not the teaching of religious subjects or by religious people – that an inner-city math lesson is as much a religious act as is a Rabbinics Class in a Jewish Day School.  Because so much of teaching is relational (with your students, your parents, your colleagues, etc.) and because in order to relate you must acknowledge the divine in others, I really believe that teaching is in and of itself “religious”.  [You can substitute “spiritual” if it makes you more comfortable.]  I do not think it is an accident that many teachers consider their work a “calling” and not a “career”.

And so to the teachers who have been called and the parents who partner with them, I offer words from one of my most favorite books on teaching:

“One of the great sorrows in human life is the discovery, too late, of our own beauty and of the beauty of much that we do.  Such is often the case with teachers, as we contemplate ourselves and our vocation.  At the deepest level, every teacher wants to become a better teacher, even a great teacher; in moments of insight, every teacher is aware of hidden gifts of creativity and imagination.

“But often the pressures, deadlines, and exigencies of dailiness keep teachers from standing back and viewing their work with the care both they and their work deserve.  Often when there might be times at faculty meetings or on in-service days, demands for the newest, the latest, and the updated can get in the way and preclude the possibility of standing back, of being still and recalling the excitement and lure which drew us to teaching in the first place.

“We need an arena, a context, and an occasion to contemplate our teaching and to recover, if we have lost them, the dreams and the hopes, the vision and the grandeur that lie at the core of teaching.  We need an opportunity to rediscover the creative, artistic teachers we are and were meant to be.” – Maria Harris, from Teaching & Religious Imagination.

I hope teaching on our faculty provides such an opportunity…



Wordle Up!

The smell of crispy latkes and sugary doughnuts is starting to slowly recede from the building as another Chanukah has come and gone.  We are now in that unique window between Chanukah and Winter Break – when both student and teacher eagerly anticipates a much-needed vacation after all the hard work and effort that has been poured into a most exciting and successful beginning to our year.  A few interesting threads are coming together at a moment when our secular calendar affords us an opportunity for reflection. (The nice thing about a shared identity is that we have plenty of holidays, new years, and chances to reflect!)

Under the leadership of our 21st Century Learning Team of Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez we hosted a conversation of local (and not-so-local) Technology and Curriculum Coordinators this past week at our school.  [The meeting grew out of our recent experience at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference of having so many of our teachers present on how we are utilizing a 21st Century Learning approach at our school and receiving such positive feedback.]  We are proud, especially for a school our size, to play a leadership role in our local community.  So…the thread of “21st Century Learning” and “Curriculum 21” was made more explicit for me this week.

Another thread has been the beginning of our formal observation period.  I am in the midst of observing and conversing with all our teachers about the work that they do.  It is amongst my favorite (and, yes, time-consuming) tasks because we get to focus in on what we all are here for – teaching and learning.  So far I have been pleased with what I am seeing and enjoying the opportunity for dialogue.

I am also finishing up the first “semester” of my “Parent University” class for parents of students in our school.  It has been a wonderful first experience and I promise that I am learning at least much as I am teaching.  I am looking forward to continuing to study with my two groups and hopefully adding some new people after Winter Break.  Another thread…

What I will use to tie it together will be a Wordle

I realize that I am late to Wordle, but having seen a few teachers make use of it during their observations, I’m discovering it for the first time and loving it.  In a nutshell, Wordle (through an algorithm only it knows) takes any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  What is great about it, is not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a Wordle representing the sum of  all its written content.

So…as an experiment in the spirit of reflection, I created a Wordle of this blog:

How awesome is that?

Is it a perfect reflection of the blog?  Probably not (mine has “Christmas” larger than “Chanukah”!), but it hits most of the high notes.  It helps me realize what I’ve been emphasizing (or over-emphasizing) or what is missing that perhaps I thought was there.  Either way it really gets you thinking…

Of course, I immediately thought of a thousand fun ways to use Wordle – should I check every classroom blog that way?  My dissertation?  The Torah?  Our school’s Behavior Code of Conduct?

How fun!

So…let’s Wordle Up!  Find a text that is meaningful to you, create a Wordle, and find a way to share it.  The wordle is waiting!