For decades, supporters, advocates and proponents of Jewish Day School and Yeshiva education have been searching for the magic silver bullet that will transform these schools into cohesive institutions of academic excellence – in Limudei Kodesh (Judaics) and Limudei Chol (General Studies).
This quest continues to take place in an ever-shifting environment, demanding high quality instructional personnel, educational leadership and an unswerving communal and institutional commitment to their financial stability and viability. It also takes place in a time in our history, which relies heavily upon professional and lay leadership decision-making, policy development and support, and consensus building in order to help build strong and viable institutions.
Although the success and impact of today’s Jewish Day School and Yeshiva is quite remarkable, it is nevertheless an institution (not unlike other high quality schools) which is in search of high quality professional leadership and role models to help lead and guide the it through a variety of 21st century challenges and exigencies. These range from the growing teacher shortage to increased costs of school operations; from responding to students with exceptionalities to the growing need for additional physical space; and, from the slow erosion of parental involvement to the continuous challenges of modern technology – these are just a few of the many challenges and concerns now facing our Day Schools and Yeshivot.
As a senior day school administrator and student of organizational development and behaviour, I have always had a deep and profound interest and respect for how schools are led, how they function, how they problem-solve and effectuate strategic change; and, how the variety of different leadership styles, personalities and philosophies (of those that head these institutions) impact on their effectiveness both internally and in the community.
One of the most fascinating aspects of school leadership are the wide range of leadership styles, personalities and approaches now at play in our Day Schools and Yeshivot…as well as the manner in which these styles and approaches effectuate positive impact on students, faculty, parents and the community,
As we know, an experienced professional (read Head of School or Principal) with a trained eye and years in the trenches, does not need to spend an inordinate amount of time in leadership positions to truly understand, appreciate and recognize that there are multiple types of leaders in every community and school. Some are seasoned and highly professional and some are still novices irrespective of years on the job. Some are eager to learn to improve their craft through best practice and modeling; and others unfortunately believe that they can make it up as they go along; and yet succeed (a topic for a seperate post).
Irrespective of years of leadership service, the bottom line is that an effective leader must know how to motivate, challenge and inspire their respective faculty, staff and administrative team to be the best they can be.
Last year, I participated in a c-suite executive Think-Tank of like minded educational leaders. The theme of the two-day session was Strategic Planning in Education for the 21st Century. It was truly stimulating, inspiring and informative; and above all, it afforded participants the opportunity to reflect upon our individual leadership skills, practices and strengths.
During the course of the presentation, the keynoter stated that in order for 21st century schools to be effective, they must be “transformational” and that it is the responsibility of the Head of School or Principal to initiate and lead this transformational process.
When listening to this assertion, I was almost certain that many of the 125 people in the conference room had their own sense or definition of what he actually meant by the word transformational. To be sure when I compared notes with my colleagues during the conference break, I was proven correct. We all walked away from the keynote hearing the same message, but interpreting its meaning or application in differents ways. In a sense, we all had the feeling that transformation, by definition, from a leadership perspective, is subjective and only relative to the leader or institution being impacted. In other words, one person’s definition of transformation is another person’s same-old-same old, but doing it a bit differently.
Transformational School Leadership 101:
In recent years the topic of “transformational school leadership” – its meaning, purpose, application, and value, has gained tremendous traction. It is now widely accepted that transformational school leaders know how to encourage, inspire and motivate their staff to perform in ways that create meaningful school change. This is of particular importance when addressing or creating school improvement or enhancements plans.
For example, following the COVID pandemic, many school leaders were forced to take a deep dive into the manner in which their respective schools responded to the crisis, as well as their changing leadership roles and responsibilities. Words and concepts like resilience, grit, new normal, new realities, paradigm shift, realignment and unprecedented, created a new lexicon anchored in uncertainty. It also created a new and evolving leadership mindset which helped many school leaders understand and appreciate the true depth and essence of what it means to lead strategically during times of change and future uncertainty. As a result, the need for true transformational leadership in schools began to take on more importance and significance than prior to the pandemic.
Transformational leadership represents a leadership approach that empowers, enables and motivates school staff and ite administrative team. In its ideal form, it creates, validates and positions change in its followers by transforming a school’s followership into leadership. This transition – from followership to leadership – represents one of the most powerful indicators or markers of true organizational leadership and change.
It is important to note that transformational leadership does not need to be disruptive, nor does it need to be the result or response to a crisis, but rather part of a natural ebb and flow rhythm of a school’s ecosystem. It encourages the school leadership team members to improve their performance by pushing them to be creative, innovative problem-solvers and to begin to view their roles and responsibilities not as a job requirement and responsibility on a checklist, but rather as a critical link in the school’s future trajectory.
The Head of School and Principal as Transformational Leaders
Transformational school leadership empowers, enables and motivates members of the school faculty and leadership team to become the most effective at what they are expected to do. In its “ideal form”, it creates a value proposition and an environment of trust and positive change in members of a school’s leadership team; and, over a period of time transforms them from being followers to leaders in their own right.
This creates an amazingly powerful and effective school culture and structure which can only benefit the variety of school programs, services , policies and protocols as well as students, teachers and parents.
When encouraging, motivating or leading transformational school change, the Head of School or Principal clearly understands the critical importance of authenticity and practicing what he or she preaches. They need to walk the walk and continuously model school standards of behavior, expectations and actions; and they are alway cognizant of their actions and the perception of their actions on the part of staff, students and community.
Leading a school through a transformational change process doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Highly effective heads of school and principals do not set out (from the get-go) to “transform” their schools. Their motivation is not “to transform”, but rather to change, improve and enhance the school’s structure, leadership, policies, programs , operations and effectiveness. By doing so effective, a series of transformational changes take place which will have a cumulative strategic impact of the school as a whole. Transformational change is therefore the total sum of a school’s efforts to change its way of doing business, across the board internally and externally
Several important characteristics or traits of transformational school leaders may include:
- Delegating ownership of curricular coordination and supervision;
- Encouraging and soliciting feedback from teachers, students and staff;
- Motivating students and staff to share critical insights and opinions that can change classroom environments;
- Encouraging and empowering students to make their own (independent but guided) decisions;
- Ensuring that personal and shared organizational goals are clearly linked;
- Expecting that teachers are intellectually stimulated and always encouraged to try new things;
- Ensuring that there is a clear shared school vision and curricular expectations;
- Continuously striving to ensure high morale and motivation;
- Providing continuous curricular support and guidance to faculty; as well as public recognition for their achievement in striving for academic excellence;
- Inspiring and promoting collaboration, trust, honesty and transparency;
- Ensuring that all curricular goals are clear, concise, measurable and attainable;
- Promoting and supporting empathy and collegiality;
- Ensuring that all communications – internal and external – are clear, concise and timely;
- Ability to take intelligent risks;
- Commitment to active listening;
- Ensuring that all member of the staff and administration exhibit personal integrity;
- Encouraging self-management;
- Soliciting new ideas for continuous growth and improvements;
- Keeping egos parked and the door and treating everyone equally and fair;
- Stimulating intellectual curiosity on the part of staff, faculty and students; and
- Creating and supporting a value system anchored in torah values middot, derech eretz and chesed.
These are just a select few of the characteristics or organizational leadership traits necessary to help create transformational school environments.
Not all day schools or yeshivot require all of the above expectations at the same level of frequency or intensity. The role of the head of school and/or principal is to determine an organizational balance and to determine which aspects of the school requires change first, in order of priority. This is what transformational leadership it all it. It must be deliberate, balanced, realistic, measurable…. and, above all, purposeful.
Although this post focuses specifically upon transformational leadership in Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot, reality dictates that most of the fundamental principles and building blocks described herein are the same for most nonprofit organizations and institutions,
The one aspect of transformational change that is very specific or unique to our schools however, is that a school, unlike any other institutions, is entrusted with the cognitive, intellectual social and emotional growth, development and wellbeing of our students and their families.
This reality suggests a very tall order; and, one which must always be supported, protected , guarded, protected and honored.