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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Providing ‘Chizuk’ to Our Faculty: A Post-October 7th Leadership Imperative

As we begin to wind-down our school year, our yeshivot and Jewish day schools are experiencing their last several days of school with a juxtaposition of feelings and emotions.

On the one hand, many are sincerely looking forward to a summer break.of rest and relaxation, On the other, the current war in Israel continues to preoccupy our minds and consumes our thoughts, and concerns as we enter into the summer months.

Upon reflection, this past year, was one of the most difficult and daunting periods in recent memory. With an existential war raging  between Israel  and Hamas and the explosive tsunami  of world-wide antisemitic and anti-Israel demonstrations, we conclude  the school  year feeling edgy, concerned and worried about acheinu bnai yisrael in Israel and around the world.

During these last several days of school, many of our students and their families are looking forward to well-earned graduations, anticipated final exam results and grades as well as a long awaited and overdue summer break and respite for our faculty and staff..

As heads of school and as principals, we never have the luxury of taking our foot off the leadership gas-peddle or slowing down our leadership activity or administrative  tempo. In fact, for school leadership, this period of time can be more hectic than ever. Schools are now  finalizing contracts with new teachers, placing new students into their appropriate grades and classes, meeting with current and prospective parents, and ensuring that all faculty are complying with the wide range of  year-end requirements –  including the submission of student grades, books, materials and inventory lists.

In another several weeks, heads of school and principals will be eager for vacation – as they wind down their end-of-year activities. This drill is basically the same every year. But for those of us who are “veterans” in the field,  we always  keep a keen eye in the rear mirror while planing ahead for the future.

In addition to these standard leadership requirements and expectations, during the upcoming summer respite, many senior  school professional leaders  begin to think strategically about the coming school year.

Several of the challenges we face and think about include: the school’s unmet needs for next year.  Does the school have sufficient human and capital resources to fulfill it mission and vision effectively ?  does the school have sufficient high quality and effective faculty? will the parents and board  be well informed regarding  new and evolving school  policies? and do we have an effective administrative support system and team  ready and able to help lead the school and its community forward?

Many of us know that  these are just a sampling of challenges which heads of school and principals think about  during the summer downtime. For those of use who are veterans, its basically the same challenges  every year, except in rare occasions.

In light of the realities just described, this past year was indeed very different; as we face the future with true daunting uncertainty.

As we know, the one unique leadership challenge and opportunity we face is the impact of the Israel- Hamas war on our community, the increased level and  frequency of antisemitism and the anti-Israel movement and its negative impact on our communities, families, students and teachers……in addition to the role of our schools in advocating for continued unwavering  support of Israel. Its so very difficult to focus on the future when Klal Yisrael is focused and  fixated on the current matzav in Israel and on world Jewry.

Several of the challenges that arise include: does our school have sufficient security on campus and are we doing everything possible to keep our students and faculty safe? how many emergency safety and active shooter drills should our school schedule and conduct without freaking out our students, parents and faculty? does the school have sufficient mental health practitioners and counselors on staff in order to help our students and faculty respond to their fear and concerns?  are our faculty – kodesh and chol well informed and prepared to  address sensitive age-appropriate concerns regarding loss, antisemitism and the dangers of living in today’s turbulent and confusing environment? and how often should our schools offer divrei chizuk for our students, faculty and parents. This does not include regularly scheduled tefilla  and the ongoing recitation  of tehillim and special brachot for our families, soldiers and hostages still in captivity?

Many of the faculty and staff in our schools are inextricably connected and linked to Israel. Whether they be family members, friends or colleagues, virtually all faculty are affected by the current war in Israel. They wake up in the morning and try to retire at night with worry and angst about the current matzav in Israel and what appears to be the never ending seesaw  of wins, loses, hope, despair and promise.

These realities are again exacerbated by acts of  violent antisemitism in our very own back yards, neighborhoods and  communities.

Supporting, Guiding and Leading  Faculty

The  role of our yeshivot and Jewish day schools in addition to curricularizing our educational responses and support for Israel  must also continue to include the provision  of  safe, secure and healthy environments  (“safe spaces”) for our teachers, faculty and staff.

As an example…… during an end-of-year school celebration which I had the privilege to facilitate, I overheard a conversation between four teachers who where truly worried about the impact of today’s matzav on their teaching effectiveness as well as on the physical and psychological safety of their students and  families. They were sincerely concerned and preoccupied with the fact that they were frightened –  detracting and deflecting from their role as teachers and as inspiring instructional leaders. .

As yeshiva and day school leadership plan for the coming year, it is imperative that our schools begin to plan an extensive and comprehensive teacher and faculty support system.

This school-wide system may include, but not be limited to:

  • offering teachers and faculty in-service workshops and seminars which focus on the impact of the current matzav on teaching impact and effectiveness;
  • volunteer opportunities  to participate in professional stress-reduction training;
  • teacher access to discreet and private mental health counselling;
  • the provision of age-appropriate curricular material which focus upon Jewish history, antisemitism and community;
  • divrei chizuk and special learning sessions conducted by staff and invited guests and Torah scholars;
  • parallel parent education programs designed exclusively for parents and adults;
  • ongoing supervisory meetings with faculty in order to encourage and facilitate greater understanding and sensitivity;
  • increased classroom observations in order to stay ahead or advance any classroom instruction or classroom management challenges;
  • more frequent individual and group faculty meetings in order to help faculty reflect and unpack many of the issues, concerns and challenges they are currently facing as teachers in the school; and
  • discreet and confidential  authorized/approved permission for  individual faculty to take off one or two days from  their teaching assignments in order to deal with added stress,

It is obvious that the above strategies and tactics cannot be planned and/or offered in a vacuum. In fact, they will require significant time, thought, planning, energy and resources.

All of this, places a significant responsibility and burden on the shoulders of head of school and principal. It also may divert and deflect from  day-to-day administrative responsibilities and duties or circumvent specifics leadership roles and responsibilities.

The challenge here can be summarized in one word. – “prioritize”.

In light of the critical need to offer well-planned supplemental programming, heads of school and principals must make a determination as to what responsibilities are critical to the mission of the school and which ones can be put on the back-burner until the current  crisis is diminished.

This must also require a heart-to-heart conversations between the senior educational leadership of the school and the school board.

Endnote:

In the final analysis, today’s  existential crisis in Israel and in diaspora communities will not disappear or dissipate by themselves. It will take time, and the will of  HaShem.

At best, it must be the responsibility of school leadership to plan and offer as much support to their faculty as humanly possible. The rest is in the hands of  HaShem

Is it possible?

Of course  it is …..but only if we are certain that we maintain the will and commitment to make it happen.

That’s what true and unswerving educational leadership is all about.

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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