Mid-March was filled with a great deal of excitement and energy for Jewish day school educators, and I’m not simply talking about the festivities associated with Purim. Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools held its biannual conference in Atlanta, and I attended with my Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) team and more than 1000 other colleagues in the field. The conference was heartening and inspiring for this diverse population of Jewish educators, funders, and influencers, evidenced by a wide range of blog articles written in the last few days and posts filling our social media feeds.
In the spirit of being a positive disruptor, JEIC conducted an audacious initiative at the conference. Taking the first page out of a design thinking playbook, we created a unique mechanism for connecting directly with Jewish educators and influencers to find out their hopes and needs.
How did we do it?
When an organization is facing a big change - the arrival of a new leader, a shift in strategy, rapid growth (or decline) - one often hears the well-worn reminder that “change is not an event, it is a process.” Well-intended advice, perhaps, but not helpful. It is not helpful because when change is at hand, hard work is needed, not sage advice. It is not helpful because with all new pressures, we have to focus on the work, not words.
And it is not helpful, most precisely, because it is not true.
After six months of full time work with JEIC I’m still seeing things with “newbie” eyes. One observation that stands out to me is what appears to be a replication of effort among many precincts, all of which share the cause of improving Jewish day school education. Many of us seem to be simultaneously re-inventing the wheel. Perhaps this is part of what The AVI CHAI Foundation recognized when they approached the various Jewish day school networks to propose the umbrella organization, which has since developed into Prizmah.
Below are three examples from the many I have recently encountered of what may exemplify a less efficient use of resources:
The darkness of our times feels particularly difficult for me. Gratefully, Hanukkah this year reminded me that even one small light can brighten a relatively big space and more significantly, one small light (the shamash) can extend its power.
In an era when there is much justified conversation about the fragility of day schools, it is easy to succumb to the dark conversations about our future. I, however, prefer to see the rays of light, the schools whose trailblazing initiatives illuminate the larger field and serve as models from which we can learn. In my visits to these schools and conversations with their professional and lay leaders, eight principles emerge that characterize stronger schools, often defying demographic odds:
Heraclitus, a 5th Century BCE Greek philosopher has been quoted as saying, “The only constant is change.” Conversely, an early 20th Century executive at 20th Century Fox averred that “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Even in modern times the CEO of Microsoft expressed disbelief in the constant nature of change. He once remarked, “There’s no chance that (Apple’s) iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
I think we can all agree that nothing stays the same. Given that, the inevitability of change should apply to educational principles, as well. Why, then, are some Jewish Day Schools so resistant to incorporating change into their approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and human development (especially social-emotional learning)?
An 18-wheeler makes a U-turn on Flatbush Avenue. That’s not a setup to a joke; I watched it with my own two eyes. Based on what you might know about big trucks and Brooklyn, you may realize that this seems like an insurmountable task and incredibly daring. Clearly, this turn was necessary for the driver’s destination. Why else would someone attempt this? Ultimately, even with hundreds of honking cars and onlookers, the driver successfully rerouted the truck -- with a carefully managed maneuver that didn’t even need a do-over. The driver knew what he needed to do to be successful; clearly he received ample training and had great experience on the road.
How fitting to watch such a memorable turn in direction happen when I was traveling to visit a number of excellent, student-centered schools, who are rerouting the field of Jewish day school education.
There is a frenetic pace that has taken over Jewish education, and education in general. Maybe this is a result of the flood of offerings on social media promoting how to be a #betterschool or the latest technology you must have to be #cuttingedge. Perhaps it comes from a feeling that in order to retain and attract students schools can’t stop moving, training, improving, innovating. This is overwhelming educators and is having a ripple effect into all aspects of Jewish Day Schools. We are losing talented teachers and school leaders who want to keep up, but the speed at which things move may be too fast for even the most dedicated educators.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that training or improving or innovating are bad. In fact, they are a must if we want our children to excel and be engaged citizens who see the world through a Jewish lens. Our students need exposure to a variety of disciplines and skills, and they need to master them. However, what I have felt, seen and heard is a growing grumbling from teachers and leaders alike who are grabbing at the next best thing that is just out of reach. Whether it’s a 3-D printer, a new STEM lab, the latest coding software, SEL curriculum, personalized learning – schools can’t stop figuring out what they are missing. But, perhaps, they are missing the point of day school education in the first place.
The trust-fall — it’s the quintessential team-building go-to game. I love feeling exhilarated and terrified all at once! The key to its success is obvious; you must trust that people will actually deliver on their promise to catch you. It’s not enough just to hear, “We’ve got your back; we won’t let you fall.” Action transforms a promise into proven trustworthiness.
Trust in school leadership is important to productivity, innovation, loyalty, positive morale, and more. There is no shortage of research and opinion pieces citing the ways leaders can earn trust. Clarity, consistency, contribution, compassion, and other traits that don’t begin with a C are essential for building leadership trust.
A slightly interesting twist in the trust game surfaces in a recent article about trust in leadership in the Harvard Business Review by Holly Henderson Brower, et al. “Trust begets trust,” the article’s authors noted. To build trust FROM others, leaders need to show trust IN others.
The month of Tishrei is filled with Jewish holiday commemorations and celebrations, with all that goes with them. We begin with preparations for Rosh Hashana; hearing the shofar blasts before and during the holidays, making sure our holiday finery--whether white or colorful--is ready, and assuring that our meals with family and friends are fully planned and outstanding with all the attendant necessities: the round challot with honey, the apple, the new fruit. We continue with Yom Kippur, beating our chests, crying [if you are like me] over our distanced relationship from God and from others, and vowing to ourselves to do better in the coming year. Then we embrace Sukkot with all of its pageantry: the Sukkah, the lulav and etrog, and the dancing to celebrate completing another cycle of Torah reading on Simchat Torah.
Most of our schools provide both intellectual and experiential lessons for the students; as much as can be done with the Tishrei holidays so early in the school year. The children complete all sorts of projects on holiday paraphernalia. They learn about the reasons for and the rituals connected with each holiday, and they practice those rituals in a hopefully spiritual environment in school.
Are these school activities sufficient for inspiring our children to develop an enduring connection to their Judaism? They are single activities, each limited to a specific episode. How can something enduring emanate from a one-hour experience? Obviously, the atmosphere at Jewish schools should be saturated with Jewish values, practices, and life experiences, but is that enough?
Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, Tikun Olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future. We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it. Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now. It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in important ways.
In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the last 10 to 15 years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus. When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.
We all should aspire to create a setting where Jewish students want to learn Judaic Studies when they aren’t in the classroom. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.
My commitment to Jewish education drives my work, my philanthropy, and my passions. Among my proudest efforts was helping to create the Jewish Community Day School of Greater Boston (JCDS) over two decades ago. The school’s founding was rooted in core values that were surfaced from visioning exercises and conversations among a committed and passionate group of day school parents.
We began with “artifacts” (as defined by Edgar Schein), reacting in some ways to what we didn’t want and then flipping the lens from complaining to envisioning. In fact, at an early convening, we set rules giving everyone two uninterrupted minutes to speak with a limited time for complaints and a request to focus most of their time to describe the ideal. We recorded everything we heard; we clarified with each person the essence of what they shared. We asked everyone to listen deeply to each other and got a sense of the varying perspectives in the room. It was a long night. There were over 100 people in the room.
Culture change takes times, especially when accompanied by practical systems and structures that need to change. People set emotional and habitual dependencies within patterns of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration which has worked well enough to be considered valid. To wit, our world could not make an instantaneous shift to alternative fuels despite the benefits. Among the many necessary transitions, first on many people’s mind would be to solve “How would all the current gasoline based cars on the road run?” So, too, for schools pursuing change.
When a school considers a new system for reporting student learning in Judaic Studies that does not use traditional grading as the barometer for success, one may see this as the domain of the professionals alone to make. The movement toward an unfamiliar definition of accomplishment, despite the overwhelming benefits, requires not only buy-in, but support from all groups in the Jewish Day School Ecosystem.
After a long, and at times, arduous three-year process, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County became an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for the Middle Years Programme. As the first Jewish day school in this Metropolitan area to become an IB school, we join a short list of three Jewish schools in North America to have achieved this prestigious accreditation (with the others in Toronto, Mexico City, and Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) and six secular schools in New Jersey. Our Schechter school now ranks among 1,500 IB Middle Years Programme schools around the world. What's more, we are proud to lay claim as the first Jewish day school to tailor this gold-standard educational framework to our Judaic studies curriculum. This means we are creating a uniquely Jewish experience for our students to connect their Jewish learning to the world around them and to turn their learning into action. We chose the IB because it offers a powerful lens through which we can better integrate and teach general studies and Jewish text, traditions and Hebrew language. The journey has been demanding and has called for the support of our teachers, students, parents, and board; it has paid off.
We have achieved the first big milestone in this process of school change; however, we recognize we are still at the beginning of a journey. Our success will depend on our continued commitment to full implementation of all aspects of this program. We have documented a few key lessons we have learned along the way that we believe would help any school embark on a similar school-change initiative.