Relationship Development = Professional Development: A DSLTI Reflection

I had the privilege earlier this month to spend two weeks in New York City, fulfilling my role as Mentor during the second summer of Cohort 12 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  [I was a Fellow in Cohort 4 and you can revisit my blog post from last summer for more context about my experiences in the program, why I am serving as a Mentor and how it fits into my current role as Head of OJCS.]  Like many programs coming out of COVID times, DSLTI navigated the transition from Zoom to in-person.  Unlike just about every leadership capacity-building program I’ve ever participated in, however, DSLTI spends at least as much time in relationship development as it does in professional development.

As I sit in my office gearing up for the return of teachers as we prepare to open my sixth year at OJCS, that is my big takeaway – my “a-ha” moment from my deeply intense and nourishing time at DSLTI.  And when you think about, it is a also a deeply Jewish idea about learning – that learning is amplified when it comes in and through authentic relationship.  Yes, in order to discuss issues that matter, a certain baseline of trust is necessary in any group.  Vulnerability, candor, and transparency are prerequisites to moments of meaning.  But I don’t simply view “relationship development” as a necessary step on a ladder towards “professional development”.  I am arguing that we learn more deeply and more significantly when we do it in relationship with like-minded fellow travelers.  Your feedback, your thoughts, your suggestions, your guidance lands on me with exponentially added force and weight, when I know you.  And when I say “know” in this context, I mean somewhere that’s neither at a superficial level, but also not at unreasonably overfamiliar level.

Professional intimacy.

That’s as close as I can come to connoting this idea.  To help teachers, to help administrators, to help students, to help myself continue to grow – to ensure that everyone in the culture can be their most authentic self in service of performing at their highest potential – I believe more attention at OJCS should and will be put towards relationship-building and relationship-sustaining.

When our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week, we will, of course, schedule traditional “professional development” sessions that deal with the art and science of teaching.  [I’ll share more about that as it draws closer.]  There are ideas, both new and old, that require time to master and to review.  There are skills that require training.  There is tachlis planning that requires time so that we are ready to welcome our students back the following week.  But we are also going to spend significant time (re)building relationships as we emerge from years of silos and isolated work.

A school is only as good as its teachers and teachers will only be their best when they are fully invested in each other, the culture, the community and the school.  An excellent Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math Teacher will likely deliver a quality product, regardless.  But we don’t just teach Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math at OJCS.  We teach Maia and Moshe and Liam and Lori.  To truly do that – to teach children and not just subject matter – means investing in relationships.

I cannot wait to welcome my team and my teachers back to school.

Why Governance Matters

The 2021-2022 school year is shaping up to be a year where we have a rare opportunity to shine a light on one of the most important determinants of a successful Jewish day school…governance.

You may recall (and you may have even attended) the “Governance Town Hall” we held back in November.  That was an opportunity for parents in our school to better understand what governance at OJCS presently looks like, to be introduced/reminded of who our lay leaders are, and to ask questions.  I find it critical that parents and members of the community understand how private schools are best run and to provide regular opportunities to share how we are measuring up.  It was wonderful to share those thoughts with parents and to receive critical feedback.  It is something we plan to do on a regular basis.

This week, I had another opportunity to be reminded of the impact governance has on schools when I helped facilitate the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) “Governance Retreat” in Los Angeles.  [Yes, the timing with the first days of our school’s pivot to optional masking were way less than ideal.]  You may recall that I posted last July about my participation on the faculty of DSLTI and what I hoped it would contribute to my work here at OJCS.  I won’t repeat those ideas here, but needless to say, I returned to OJCS with both new ideas and a newfound appreciation for what our board and lay leaders have accomplished over the last four and a half years.

I know we tend to focus our energy on the most obvious stakeholders of schooling – students, parents and teachers.  When I describe the school’s stakeholders, I try to widen that circle to include volunteers, community and donors.  And technically the board checks many of those boxes – our board are, of course, all volunteers and all contribute materially to the school.  Many are or have been parents and many are or have been leaders in other Jewish community organizations, not to mention the wider Ottawa community.  But being on the board of a Jewish day school is quite the unique experience.  (I also think that because there is sometimes a little confusion and/or unnecessary mystery about how people find their way onto the school’s board that there is a bit of discomfort which renders the topic a bit of a “non-discussible”.)  What I can tell you from three headships, three years of working with over 50 Jewish day schools during my time heading up Schechter and working at Prizmah, and my current work with DSLTI, is that healthy governance matters and it matters now more than ever.

When I was hired at OJCS just about five years ago, I knew who my first two board chairs were going to be and had a strong sense of who the third was going to be – which in my experience was highly unusual and welcome first foreshadowings of stability.  These three extraordinary leaders – Michael Polowin, Leila Ages and Lorne Segal – have been my partners on each and every step we have taken together to move our school from fragility to stability.  Being a head of school is a lonely occupation (partially why programs like DSLTI exist) and the relationship between head and chair is arguably the single most important one in the entire school ecosystem.  The chair is there to support, to advise, to thought-partner, to hold accountable, to supervise and so much more.  Whether I need a hug or a kick in the pants, my board chair is there.  They spend untold hours on their board responsibilities, frequently on top of full days of work and other volunteerism.  However often I thank them, it is surely not enough.

Chairs and boards are the third leg of a stool without which a school would collapse.  The board shapes mission, provides resources, performs fiscal oversight and supervises the head of school.  There is no school administration, no teachers, no curriculum, no program – there is no what to do, and no one to teach our students without the work of the board.  To put it most simply, the school concerns itself with today and the board ensures that there will be a tomorrow.  There has never been a more important and challenging time to serve on the board of a Jewish school.  I am grateful to our current board for all they have done and all they will do to secure the future of OJCS and, through it, contribute to securing the future of Jewish Ottawa.

Serving on a board is a kind of calling…if you hear that call and feel moved to respond, I hope you let us know.  Our children can never have too much support.

Summer Listening: DSLTI Gives the Gift of Genuine Reflection

Happy Summer!

I slept in until about 8:00 AM this morning and it felt so luxurious that I almost felt guilty about being such a lazybones.  Such is the life I have chosen for myself…

I am extremely blessed that both my employer and my family have signed off on two pretty significant pursuits that have been occupying what bandwidth I have available once I have put all my energy towards my primary occupation.  The first, beginning my rabbinical school studies, is something that I wrote about a few months ago.  The second, however, is not something that I have shared out yet.  I am extremely proud to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be a participant in its fourth cohort when I was just beginning my career.  DSLTI is oriented around intense summer work, with twice-yearly retreats and weekly mentoring to flesh out the full experience.  The first summer of this, the twelfth, cohort just completed its two weeks last Friday and, thus, is the inspiration for this blog post.

For my school, I believe they understand and appreciate how the learning I get from rabbinical school and from DSLTI will directly add value to my work as head of a Jewish day school.  Coming straight out of the first peak experience of DSLTI, I wanted to take an opportunity to make that added value more explicit.

There are (at least) four direct ways that my preparations and work as a DSLTI Mentor will make me a better head of school:

  • Books, books, books, articles, videos, and books!  In order to teach the formal curriculum – which this summer focused on “Mission-Vision-Philosophy”, “School Culture”, “School Teams”, “Leadership Presence” and “Strategic Change Leadership” (of which I had a shared responsibility for teaching the latter two) – one has to be current and so I will always be reading and watching and listening to the newest research and ideas (and be refreshed in the “classics”).
  • So much of how we work with our mentees – the pedagogy we employ in the program – has direct applicability to our work in schools.  I have already fleshed out the first few meetings of our own Educational Leadership Team (ELT) based on the work we did on “Teams” at DSLTI.  I have already programmed a chunk of our Faculty Pre-Planning Week using ice-breakers and texts we used at DSLTI.
  • A lot of what we work on with our mentees comes directly from real-world situations and scenarios.  The more consultancies I have an opportunity to lead or participate in, the more practical and constructive advice I receive about how to navigate experiences that absolutely can and do happen at our school.  It is like having real-time access to expertly crowdsourced expertise.
  • The most important – for me – opportunity that being a mentor in DSLTI provides is that it forces me to listen, to deeply listen.

Man was endowed with two ears and one tongue, that he may listen more than speak.  – Hasdai, Ben HaMelekh veHaNazir, ca. 1230, chapter 26

The work of a mentor is to listen and to ask questions – both clarifying and probing – to help bring a mentee towards a measure of understanding.  It is not to provide the mentee with answers to questions (although that is occasionally appropriate/necessary).  It is also the HARDEST thing on earth for me to do!  The coaching that I am going to receive so that I can be a good mentor is probably the thing that will add the most value to my work as a head of school.  I am going to be forced to slow down, to listen deeply and most importantly to shift out of the headspace of “problem-solver” and into the space of “capacity-builder”.

When our school embraced the “7 Habits” a few years ago, I spoke a little bit about this idea when describing how I thought about “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”.  The difference, I believe, is that in a “7 Habits” context we are focusing on conflict-resolution and community-building.  In the DSLTI/mentor context, we are focusing on capacity-building and leadership development.  The better skilled I can get as mentor will hopefully provide my Admin Team, our ELT, and all our teachers with opportunities for them to grow as educators and as leaders – which is an outcome that can only mean good things for our students and our school.

OJCS Families!  Stay tuned for a brief staffing update as we have largely resolved all outstanding issues!  We look forward to introducing you to the rest of the amazing 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty in the weeks ahead!

Radical Transparency: Finding Wellness Through Brazen Vulnerability

I was out of the office this past Monday and Tuesday attending an Alumni Retreat of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be in its fourth cohort.  In addition to the coaching and content that comes during your cohort experience, one of the greatest ongoing values of DSLTI is its robust alumni network.  That alumni network gathers annually for a retreat and is typically a peak experience for attendees.  The topic this year was “wellness” and I was asked to speak specifically  on the connection between “transparency” and “wellness”.  As those were concepts that I didn’t automatically connect, I spent some time proposing and then rejecting possible ideas.

Here’s what I did not talk about:

At first, I thought I would approach it from the angle of how blogs and blogfolios can actually promote wellness in our school culture through small, but meaningful acts of kindness.

Then I thought I would come at it from how my own blogging and social media usage embodies transparency as a personal value that promotes my own self-care – talking about my personal flaws, coping with the death of my father, setting health goals, etc.

My next rejected idea was to talk about how I blog transparently about what I want to be true with the hope that by putting it out into the universe, I set in motion making it actually come true.

Next idea was to explore blogging as a form of personal cheshbon ha’nefesh – a self-accounting to inspire me to do and be better.

My final rejected idea was to explore how we use the concept of the “nondiscussible” to build a professional culture that promotes wellness in the workplace.

The truth is that I could have told compelling professional anecdotes about any of the above slides/topics.  And since many of them are pulled from blog posts I have already written…I guess I already have. But because DSLTI is such an intimate environment, a safe place for heads of schools to get real with themselves and each other, I decided that I would go deeper and more personal.  And so I landed here…

Imposter Syndrome” is a common condition across all professions.  It can be defined as…

…a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however successful they are in their field. High achieving, highly successful people often suffer, so imposter syndrome doesn’t equate with low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence.

I can distill my “imposter syndrome” down to three anecdotes reflected in the slide above which served as the heart of my talk…

The handsome gentleman on the left is me at age 13.  I was yet even more handsome at age 10 when we moved from Edison, New Jersey to Fremont, California.  In addition to my amazing Jewish Neil Diamond hair, and owlish eyeglasses, I also brought with me to California an overbite of cartoonish proportions.  My overbite was so large that I could fit two fingers (sideways) comfortably inside.  The solution?  A bionator.

My Google search for a bionator reveals to my surprise its continued existence, since I had imagined it would have been banned by the Geneva Conventions as a source of torture.  In my parents’ great wisdom and to avoid my needing to wear braces until 35, not only did I get to wear the bionator for all of Grades 6 and 7, I also got to wear headgear 18 hours a day.  And one of those days was, in fact, the very first day of school.

In a new school.

In a new state.

I show up for the first day of Grade 6 with my bionator in, Jewish locks pouring through the headgear and owl eyes.  As just one example of how awesome that was, because the bionator took up every inch of space in my mouth, I had to take it out to speak.  And because I needed a toolset to take it out, I had to have prearranged times with my teachers for when I was going to be called on.  (I swear this is all true.) My Math Teacher would tell me that she was going to call on me at 10:45 AM and then at 10:30 AM I would take out my toolset and start unhooking myself.  My time would come, I would say, like, “5x,” and then I would hook myself back together.

How I ever met a friend is an enduring mystery…

That “first-day-of-school-in-a-new-school-wearing-a-bionator” is how I feel each time I walk into a new room with new people.

The hirsute gentleman in the upper righthand corner is me at age 23.  I had taken a year after university to try to figure out what path in the Jewish professional world I wanted to walk down and landed at Jewish Education.  Based on my Reform Jewish background, I should have wound up in the master’s program at the Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.  And I likely would have if not for the friend of my mother’s who told her that if I was already going to down to LA for an interview at one seminary, that I might as well visit the Conservative one, the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).  So I set myself up an interview…

They told me that my day was going to begin with “minyan” and I said, “Great!” even though I had no idea what that was.  To paint the full picture, I wore my hair that day in a ponytail (which I assumed was more professional), put modest earrings in my four piercings, wore the only long pants in my possession coupled with Naot (Israeli Birkenstocks).  That is how I looked when a grad student met me and escorted me to the school’s beit knesset for minyan.  That morning was the first time in my life I had ever seen tefillin or a Hebrew siddur.  It was the first all-Hebrew service I had ever attended and I was totally unfamiliar with the words and the tunes.

Why I wound up attending that school and the larger Jewish journey it took me on is a longer story…

That “first-time-in-minyan” is how I feel every time I enter a synagogue.

The picture in the lower righthand corner of the slide is not a class photo.  That is the school photo from my first year as founding head of the recently closed Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas.  Grades 1 & 2, 14 students, three teachers and me.  The story of how that school came into existence and how I came to be its founding head is long and complicated.  It is, in fact, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and should you wish to join the exclusive club of my dissertation committee, my mother and my wife, I invite you to look it up and read it.  Needless to say, I was not a typical applicant for this job having never attended, worked or virtually ever stepped foot inside a day school until applying to be a founding head.

I distinctly remember the part of my interview where I attended a parlour meeting for prospective parents at the home of the rabbi who was spearheading the school’s creation.  At that time there were only the 6 students continuing into Grade 2 and prospective parents for what would turn out to be 8 students beginning Grade 1.  Because of my utter lack of experience and network – I was only accepted into DSLTI after I somehow got the job – the only way I could prepare for the interview was to do some light internet research.  I landed on PEJE’s (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, now folded into Prizmah) PDF for launching new Jewish schools and tried to commit it to memory.

At this parlour meeting was a set of parents who had graduated from The Ramaz School, a very prominent Modern Orthodox Day School in Manhattan and they asked me a ton of very reasonable and practical questions to try to ascertain how on earth I was qualified to found this new school.  As I stood in the foyer sweating through my suit, stumbling to express my views on secular curriculum, Jewish curriculum, pedagogy, Hebrew, and anything and everything else about running a school, I was quite convinced that this was the beginning and the end of my career in Jewish day school education.

Why I wound up getting the job and the larger arc of my career that it launched is a longer story…

That  “sweating through my suit” is how I feel at all our town halls.

The feedback from my DSLTI peers when I gave this presentation was instructive.  Many shared with me that they had no idea that I felt that way – I seem so confident or I appear to have a strong leadership presence.  And like most people, I both do and I don’t.  I have obviously grown and learned and failed and succeeded and achieved and done a lot since I was 10, 23 and 33.  But that’s the way imposter syndrome works for us all.

So there you have it.  The simple truth is that I employ a kind of radical transparency not only because I think it creates healthy culture, leads to sound pedagogy, fosters parental buy-in and engagement – which I do.

In a sense “transparency” is my superpower.  It is the superhero cape I adorn that lets me be my best self.  I put it all out there because doing so makes me well and, I hope, promotes wellness in others.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

This will be my last blog post before we go onto Winter Break next week.  Wishing everyone a joyous Chanukah, a Happy New (Secular) Year and a relaxing break.  We look forward to welcoming everyone back to school in 2020!