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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Promoting Instructional Leadership in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot

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Veshinantam Levanecha.…(Devarim, Deuteronomy…6:7)

(Thou Shalt Teach Them Diligently to Your Children…) 

Instructional leadership is a term that is used to describe the role of a senior level educator in a school who leads and supports teaching and learning. Administrative leadership on the other hand, refers a school administrator who provides a level of direction and guidance (operational) to the school community.

The concept and definition of instructional leadership is often used interchangeably with administrative or operational leadership. Although they both define in part the role and function of the principal or head of school, they are more often than not mutually exclusive.

Instructional leaders are central to advancing a school’s curriculum, mission and vision, educational philosophy, hashkafa, value proposition as well as teacher impact and faculty effectiveness. These leaders are continuously preoccupied with student learning, academic progress and growth; as well as the creation and support of educational standards, core competencies and student outcomes.

It is essential that schools ensure that the “trains are running on time”; and that class schedules, lesson plans, faculty and parent/teacher meetings, report cards, grant applications and standardized tests are all in place in an efficient and timely fashion. These important administrative (“non-educational”) leadership activities and responsibilities are not to be minimized. But, they do not represent instructional leadership.

As Jewish day schools and yeshivot continue to identify, recruit and hire senior educational leadership, against a backdrop of scarce financial resources, it is imperative that these schools focus on engaging and supporting principals and heads of school who are instructional leaders. Most of the other administrative leadership activities and responsibilities can be assumed or delegated to upper level school administrators or coordinators with knowledge, expertise and experience in school/nonprofit operations or management systems.

Finally all too often, schools hire principals or heads of school as super managers with little regard to the basic fundamental raison d’etre of the school – namely the formulation, support and hands-on delivery of high level chinuch. This results in the creation of a school with high levels of efficiency and administrative thoroughness, but it will not necessarily guarantee educational rigor or academic excellence or impact – the very fundamental purpose of effective schooling and education.

On rare occasions, schools engage a head of school or principal with all of theses leadership characteristics, skills and attributes. Their success is more often than not dependent upon the manner in which they consciously surround themselves with a team of outstanding teachers, rabbeim, teacher mentors, Jewish educators/scholars and curriculum specialists. These leadership structures and constructs are by-and-large less common and exceptions to the rule.

As a close colleague recently quipped …..a school may have the most beautiful state of the art facility, impressive social media platforms and marketing  materials, effective parent-teacher conferences, on-time report card schedules, impressive color-coded tables of organization – all criticality essential to the smooth functioning of a school. But, if it fails in its educational mission or mandate to promote, support and celebrate serious academic excellence and outstanding teaching and learning, literacy, values-base modeling and knowledge, then it has failed. To be sure, parents send their children to our Jewish day schools and yeshivot  in order for them to receive a quality chinuch in both limudei kodesh and limudei chol. This responsibility on the part of a school’s administration should be undeniable.

As educational leaders responsible for overseeing our schools, we all know and appreciate the fact that these non educational requirements are essential to a school’s effective functioning and operations. Having said that, these activities should be viewed as supportive and complimentary; not central or core to the school’s educational mission, vision or philosophy.

Instructional Leadership Skills:

Instructional leadership skills and effective teaching are directly related to the success of student outcomes in a classroom setting. Instructional leaders  therefore advocate for effective teaching by providing clarity and support for teachers as well as  procuring the necessary resources in order to maximize teaching impact and effectiveness.

In other words, the role and function of a principal/head of school who serves as instructional leader must be to spend an inordinate amount of quality time observing teachers in the classroom, providing teachers with valuable instructional feedback, and ensuring that what is being taught in the classroom is aligned with grade-level lesson plans and the curriculum. Additional responsibilities include the design of professional development opportunities for faculty which should also be aligned with a faculty’s professional growth and trajectory. In these cases, instructional leaders are themselves an integral part of the teacher’s professional development experience.

It is important to note that there are principals and heads of school who bemoan the fact that there are not enough hours in the day or resources necessary to assume their (instructional leadership) responsibilities as well as a myriad of other important non-educational duties and challenges. This assumes that if they do not take on these important infrastructure/administrative activities, nobody will. Although this may be true at times, this questionable assumption must be addressed by the principal/head of school together with the school’s administrative team and if required, Board of Directors.

Several solutions to this problem may require the redeployment or assignment of executive and administrative staff; the hiring of a professional solely responsible for non-educational school requirements; or the repositioning of the Principal by the Head of School …so that the Principal becomes the school’s instructional leader for Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol....while the head of school assumes more operational or non-educational/management duties.

It’s important to note that in the absence of a solution to this challenge a school pays a very heavy price when the head of school or principal assumes non educational leadership roles at the expense of providing educational leadership to the school. Ultimately, it is not fair to the leadership of the school, to the faculty… and for sure, to parents and the student body.

Reality dictates that, at one time or another in our careers, we all feel that we can take on more administrative responsibilities than we actually can. Amazingly, some in fact do and are most successful. But for the majority of principals and heads of school, it is essential that principals and heads of school stay in their lanes and become the best they can be as true instructional leaders..

Instructional Leadership Traits and Characteristics:

The following are select traits and characteristics which instructional leaders posses and demonstrate:

Instructional Leaders…………..

  • Promote and support collaboration and listen carefully;
  • Put the student and teacher at the center;
  • Promote, support and create peer coaching and observation opportunities;
  • Posses a growth mindset through continuous reflective practice;
  • Adjust teacher and student support based on need;
  • Allow faculty to know that its ok to make mistakes
  • Participate in professional development not as a passive, but as an active learner;
  • Eliminate “micromanagement” from the school environment (it does not lead to better choices);
  • Lead and inspire faculty with integrity, consistency and demonstrated ability – the three hallmarks of an instructional leader;
  • Focus continuously on positive student outcomes, growth and success;
  • Communicate high academic standards;
  • Ensure that all school environments are conducive to outstanding learning;
  • Promote, model and demonstrate educational excellence.
  • Utilize curricula as the school’s internal road map; and
  • Continuously focus on quality of instruction, teaching and learning;

As we dive a bit deeper into the characteristics of an effective instructional leader, one appreciates the role of leading for learning, and that student achievement is at the very top of the school’s  academic, social and emotional organizational pyramid.

Finally, it is important to note that true instructional leaders place learning in the forefront and emphasize the need to prioritize learning at all times. Within the context of a Jewish Day school and yeshiva, this includes curricula which focuses upon talmudic and rabbinic textual literacy, hebrew language middot, halacha, tefilla, and required secular subject areas commensurate with the educational philosophy and hashkafa of the school.

There is no such thing as ineffective schools being led by highly qualified and effective instructional leaders. But the inverse is also true. More often than not, ineffective schools unfortunately do not view instructional leadership as a top priority and as an absolute requirement for academic progress or success.

Postscript

At the end of the day, our schools will need to make a critical choice. Do they view instructional leadership as a sine qua non for success? Or, will they get through the day by only talking the talk and not walking the talk?

This also holds true for principals and heads of school. They can opt to reposition or redefine their roles as instructional leaders through reassignment, restructuring, rightsizing and training of senior personnel or tread water in a sea of mediocrity.

For those heads of school and principals who are instructional leaders, kol haKavod. For those that are not (yet), the challenge and opportunity to become one is just waiting to happen.

In the words of  Dr. Stephen Covey:……

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing! – keeping your focus and efforts on the most important goals will help accomplish them”.

Or to paraphrase the great educator and amazing prolific author, Dr. Danny Steele………

I don’t care what your personal mission statement says. Everyone in the (school) building knows what you’re about by how you spend your time ….Where you spend your time, demonstrates your priorities. (The Principal’s Playbook)

In conclusion, spend your time (as an educational leaders) wisely. Your school, students, teachers, parents and community depend on it.

B’hatzlacha!

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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