A question that has been asked a lot as of late is, why isn’t the headship in Jewish Day Schools sustainable? I’d like to suggest that a head of school needs at least five years to effectively bring about change and to impact a school. Unfortunately, too many heads are only in their position for three or four years.
I am now in my eighth year as a head of school, my fifth at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis. I’ve made it through that tenuous 3–5-year length of tenure I heard so much about. And my current contract gets me through the next four school years. That would be nine years at one school.
I remember that dream I had from long ago, where I retire and all my former students come back and play the symphony I’ve been writing, including the governor, who was a precocious young student. Oh wait, that’s Mr. Holland’s Opus. And yet, I had a similar dream, to be at one place, in one community, for so long that I’m teaching multiple generations in the same family. But with a position that has an average tenure of 3-5 years, often requiring one to move from city to city, I fear that I may never see that beautiful opus.
When I first entered the field of education, I thought right away that I would need to go into school leadership. I saw the salaries of teachers and did not think that it would allow me to sufficiently take care of my family (by the way, twenty plus years later, the salaries still are not sufficient). The headship was not my aspiration at first. I did not want to worry about the board, or the budget, or the political game of being a head of school.
And yet, here I sit, in the head of school chair. In many ways, my instincts were correct about this job. It is lonely. It is hard to be friends with the staff and faculty who work at the school. It is hard to be friends with parents of our school’s students. It is hard to go to shul on Shabbat, or the grocery store, or the JCC, or even walk around in my neighborhood without a question about school. It is hard to be a parent and not be able to talk about my job at the dinner table. It is even harder to be a parent of students in the school, especially when I just want to be able to be their dad and not their teachers’ boss, or their friends’ head of school.
Yet, everything that I thought would be hard in my job is nothing compared to what is actually hard in my job. It is like when you become a parent and the months leading up to that day everyone tells you to get sleep whenever you can because once you have that baby, you won’t sleep again, and you laugh it off. Well, I have 112 babies this year (plus 34 adult babies on the faculty and staff, not to mention the parents too). That’s a lot of sleepless nights.
Among the items found in the job description of Heads of School in Jewish day schools are technical skills such as budget review and management, fundraising, strategy development and implementation and problem solving. There is also a need to establish and develop a leadership team and work on school culture. Add to this: faculty supervision, curriculum management, involvement with parents, and facility management. If that’s not enough, heads are also responsible for defining vision and setting goals, defining one’s own roles and the roles of others, managing change; managing lay-professional relations, managing staff; relating to other professionals in one’s organization, managing day-to-day operations; managing oneself, managing space and managing funds. A large task list for even the most trained and seasoned professional. Even with such extensive backgrounds, such as rabbinic ordination, master’s degrees and doctorates, many Heads of School feel underprepared to enter day school leadership.
Further research suggests that Jewish day school leaders can best promote their vision after being in the position for three years. But with turnover, burnout due to stress, and changing directions of schools, helping heads get to three years and ideally to five years must be a priority.
These last eight years I have been learning how to do my job, and there is still so much that I don’t know. During this time, I have also been researching why it is that this role is as difficult as it is. As part of my doctoral research in 2022, I interviewed 15 novice heads in Jewish day schools who were in their first positions and on the job for three years or less. Each echoed the above points, but also brought some additional concerns.
All participants shared five subjects they needed to know more about prior to becoming a Head of School; budgets, financials, boards, recruitment, and fundraising. They shared the training and the gaps they felt existed when moving into the headship. The following five themes emerged from the data.
- Jewish Day School Leadership Preparation
Four participants were a part of the You Lead program. For two of them, You Lead provided a significant amount of leadership development: One shared that it is “a seminal program in (one’s) path to headship.” The content of the program was rich in areas of leadership, Judaics, Hebrew, evaluation and fundraising. The content “went a mile wide, but it also went fairly deep.” The cohort model of the program and the coaching were also listed as being impactful.
Seven participants were in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI). One said that DSLTI opened his eyes to what collaboration looks like and how to collaborate even when others aren’t willing to collaborate with you. DSLTI gave him the tools for stakeholder mapping and working with the board and parents. He had guidance from DSLTI staff on how to deal with the board, parents and the community.
The biggest critique of DSLTI was around the work done towards understanding budgeting. One participant felt that the piece that was most “sorely lacking in any advanced educational or Jewish educational piece is the financial piece. The budgeting. How to do it. (At DSLTI) it was half a day. We spent a half day looking at a budget and looking at one thing but wasn’t… what you… really need to know.” She went on to describe how using Excel is not her forte, and she shouldn’t have to rely on her finance director just to help put in a 2% raise for staff.
Each of the fifteen heads has also worked with Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools at some point during their headship. Some are active on Prizmah’s head of school Reshet or weekly Zoom gatherings, while others take part in Prizmah’s programs and use their online resources. It is clear that Prizmah has provided the resources and programs that impact heads, allowing them to easily connect with others in similar roles.
- The Political Role: Managing Boards, Budgets and High Demands of the Job
Several participants had little to no experience working with boards; two had served on other boards, and one served on the board at the school she now leads. Five talked extensively about their lack of knowledge on budgets. One lamented her lack of training in business management or finance. Unlike most other aspects of the job involving day-to-day management, anything dealing with the budget requires more time to sit and look through. Another head was similarly candid about her lack of experience working on finance, budgeting and the business aspects of school. A third head was grateful to his director of finance and facilities for giving him a better understanding of the budget.
- Support for Role Socialization: Coaching/Mentoring
Participants reflected on coaches and mentors who have been influential throughout their careers and focused on current coaches and mentors in their roles as head of school. All fifteen have worked with and continue to benefit from past and current coaches and mentors.
- Balancing the Personal and Professional: Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is an elusive goal for several of the heads interviewed. For two, it calls their future in the field into question. One head worried that completely surrendering to the job means that she is neglecting her children. She was very worried about burnout. She also wondered if her struggles stem from her particular school or from the position of head of school itself. Since the completion of the study, she has left the field altogether.
One head had to ask the head support committee to step in and help. She is often so busy that she does not eat lunch; she stays late at work each day to catch up on work. And she feels lonely. She doesn’t feel like she has a team: “It’s that cliché, it’s lonely at the top.” Her excitement of being a head of school has diminished.
One head finds the 24/7 work to be a difficult piece to manage. He is in the office ten hours a day and has meetings two nights a week, whether for the school or in the Jewish community. For the first time in his life, he goes to a therapist, and he has found great value in exercise and social activity.
Another head finds it difficult to take his work hat off. Since he lives in the community, it is hard to go anywhere and not be seen as the head of school. Some people are sensitive and don’t talk to him about school when in social circles. Nonetheless, he feels trepidation, like he is walking on eggshells. He has found that going to the gym—conveniently located in his basement—is the easiest and most effective way to take his work hat off. Setting boundaries helps. His community knows that from 5:30-7:30 pm each day, he is having dinner with his family and putting his kids to bed. He tries to limit night meetings to twice a week. He checks his email nightly, but unless there is a stressful email, he is able to push most things off to the next day.
- Heads of School as Reflective Practitioners
Each of the heads talked about the best part of the job. Often, they cited the interactions with students. They also talked about the most difficult part of the job. As each of the participants first years were impacted by Covid, this was the biggest struggle. For many of the others, the financial side of the school was the biggest learning curve, as well as time management. Some also mentioned gender inequality and burnout.
Conclusion: Start with a Five-Year Contract
As I reflect on the research and on my own sustainability in the role, I can both commiserate with those with whom I spoke, but also see the growth in what it is that I am able to do. At the recent Prizmah conference, John D’Auria shared that it takes five years to truly be able to make a difference and see the change that you are making (note that this is not in the change you’ve made, but the change you continue to make). What’s scary about that statement is that many heads aren’t making it to year five.
So, if we want to see sustainable headship, give heads five-year guaranteed contracts off the bat. Let them know that they aren’t going anywhere. Let them know that it is ok to make some mistakes and to learn while you are in the role. Let them know that you are committed to them and the change agents that they are (becoming). And then five years can become 10 and so on.
But the contract is not enough.
I am lucky enough to work in a school with a board that believes in me. They provide support, encouragement, and trust. They stay out of the day-to-day operations and allow work with me in a strategic and planful way for the school’s long-term sustainability. They remind me every meeting (and in between meetings) that they believe in the work we are doing, and this allows us to remain vision aligned. A board president and a full board that does not provide that, will be looking for a new head every few years. And that is not sustainable for anyone.