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Mark Shinar
Coach, Consultant, Author: Practicing Authentic Living and Leadership

Giving Jewish day schools the authentic leaders they deserve

Educators have a Pavlovian response to late May when they begin an emotional drag, scraping their elbows, knees, and chins, to cross that finish line in June. Summer rejuvenation is a must, at least up until the point that their minds meander towards September. That mental detour causes sharp stomach drops that temporarily retreat once they’ve actively compartmentalized. All this usually happens between pages 6 and 23 of the book that they’ve honestly been meaning to read for the last three years. 

With the hope of helping educational leaders get excited about 2022-23, I recently convened a workshop for Jewish day school administrators, sharing ways in which they can guide their teams towards becoming more cohesive, collaborative, and authentic. Among the nearly 25 participants on the call, representing diverse schools throughout North America and Israel — from preschools to seminaries, from Pluralistic to Orthodox, I could see, albeit through a Zoom screen, a palpable mixture of hope, enthusiasm, exhaustion, and potential. Our schools are beginning to buy into the now prevalent models that researchers like Brené Brown have been talking about for years. Authentic people embrace imperfections and lead with what she calls courageous vulnerability. A leader herself, Brown says, “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” 

As we continue to face the consequences of the Great Resignation, now is the time for our leaders to integrate authentic leadership into their schools’ cultures. The problem is, however, that we still grapple with not just our own unrealistic needs for perfection and validation, but also with the demands that our faculty, parents, boards, donors and even our students have placed on us. We are no longer “just” educators, nor are we “simply” leaders. We are that, and we are more. We are pastoral psychologists and social workers who navigate the trickiest of social dynamics in between finance meetings where we balance our budgets. We are fundraisers who speak passionately about our schools and make the case for Jewish education, while weaving together nuanced ideas in Torah, Romantic poetry, and current events. We are the professional heads of our medical committees who devise and implement policies on masking, testing, and isolating. We incorporate educational technology while hand-wringing about our students’ inability to use a dictionary or write in cursive. We talk about critical thinking and resilience while promising that our curriculum and test schedules will be rigorous. We are on duty for arrival, lunch, and dismissal, where we are berated for what we’ve done, what we haven’t, what we want to do, and what we haven’t yet had time to consider. Have I mentioned that we have complicated personal lives too? 

But I digress. Let’s get back to the workshop where our educators agreed with the concept but still questioned whether there really is time for authenticity. Although we inherently understand that it’s not ideal, we often have to root ourselves in the operational weeds and don’t always have the space or the skills to navigate mess and noise. When it comes to amorphous ideas like being courageous and vulnerable, we wonder if it’s really doable and worth the investment.

To make it happen, our administrators and those who support them must reconceptualize what it means to be a leader. Although they aren’t formal educators, researchers like Brown and Patrick Lencioni, have much to teach us about our schools, our cultures, and ourselves. Lencioni writes to CEOs that true “teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” This must be true for educators, especially those who believe that trusting environments are the foundations on which we build safe, healthy learning spaces. 

Throughout the workshop, we grappled with some unorthodox activities through which participants were asked to surface their own vulnerabilities and fears. These are brave exercises to do in front of strangers; imagine having to do them in front of their teams. But the “Go First” method stands. We can’t possibly ask our colleagues to engage in authenticity if we aren’t prepared to model it first. 

Consider Vernon Scannell’s 1971 poem, “Tightrope Walker,” in which the narrator speaks about a crowd watching a skilled tightrope walker, and although fascinated, he notes: 

How much do we want to see him fall?

It’s no use saying we don’t at all.

We all know that we hate his breed.

Prancing the nimble thread he’s freed

From what we are and gravity.

And yet we know quite well that he

Started just as we began,

That he, like us, is just a man.

To the leaders out there, I wonder if something here resonates. You are on the line, moving yourselves and your communities from there to here, often without the benefit of a safety net below. You are human, and you are imperfect, yet somehow, by virtue of your ideals and ambitions, your practical skills and your lofty visions, you have bravely climbed the ladder and risked stepping out on behalf of our children. People may be watching from below with morbid fascination, perhaps even secretly hoping you’ll fail, and that’s frightening. But from that space of vulnerability comes your best, most artistic work.  

As we begin the summer, our leaders are deep in the fall. They are thinking, planning, and strategizing, not just about their schools, but also about themselves. In doing so, when September comes, we know that they will greet us with courage, and even though their work may be scary at times, who they are and what they value will undoubtedly strengthen their heroic hearts. 

About the Author
Dr. Mark Shinar is an educational coach, consultant, speaker and author. He earned his BA from Yeshiva University with an English Literature and Theater degree and completed a Masters degree in Private School Administration from Columbia University Teachers’ College. He taught General Studies and English Literature in SAR Academy’s elementary and middle schools before becoming Head of School at Oakland Hebrew Day School in Oakland, CA. There, he earned an Ed. D in School Leadership from Mills College. Mark returned to NY in 2009 to serve as the Director of General Studies at SAR High School for eight years, before making Aliyah with his family in the summer of 2017. Mark was the founding principal of an independent, bilingual school located in the center of Israel and most recently, he was the Head of School at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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