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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Retrospect/Prospect: A Year of Jewish Day School Accomplishments and Challenges

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REFLECTIONS

As we conclude this academic year with a variety of beautiful graduations, important teacher/faculty meetings, meaningful evaluations and assessments as well as the engagement of  new hires for the coming  academic year, we all look forward to the long awaited summer break.

When reflecting upon, this past year, we are left with a variety of invaluable insights, thoughts, feelings, images and opinions which help inform and frame our vision for the future of our institutions.

For most of us in educational leadership positions,  this desperately needed respite is a time to reflect, recharge and refresh. In addition, it provides us with invaluable time to plan for next year and beyond. We take stock of our school’s accomplishments with an eye towards the future.

In the belief that there are very few do-overs in education, we can only hope and pray that our individual and collective school experiences this past academic year will help inform our next school year with greater forethought, wisdom, experience and clarity.

The following are select reflections from this past year’s day school/yeshiva experience; several observations; and several critically important lessons learned.

The descriptions which follow, do not reflect (exclusively) this writer’s professional school experience or perception of this past year; but rather the perceptions and real-time experiences and observations of colleagues, educators and school leaders I have either coached or spoke  with….and, who are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations and functioning of our day schools and yeshivot.

The Parent Body

The role, responsibility and function of our day school and yeshiva parents and their participation in their children’s chinuch is paramount.

As such, there were parents this past year who were intimately involved in their children’s limudei kodesh and limudei chol. They were continuously in close contact with teachers, rabbeim and the administration, always participating in teacher/parent conferences; ensuring that all homework  assignments were complete; and, provided a very strong, loving and supportive torah-values infused home learning environment for their children. In addition, they truly modeled middot tovot and derech eretz and exhibited tremendous kavod (respect) towards their children’s school faculty and administration.

In addition to these attributes and characteristics, they projected a very positive demeanor and consciously gave off a very positive vibe for other parents and students.

They were considered to be true model parents who exemplified the best a parent body can offer.

As we know, our schools are heterogeneous environments and are comprised of many types of parents, as well as students. To be sure, upon refection, the parent profile (not unlike student profiles)  are not always representative of all schools based on reports I have heard or experienced in my own career..

In our world of education and schooling, there is a term that is used to describe parents who  seriously micromanage every aspect of the child’s school experience as well as the lives of those who impact on the child’s educational progress. They are referred to as  “helicopter parents”.

These parents are not dismissive or irresponsible. But rather provide and extra “layer” of  student oversight which,  although well- intentioned,  may at times create a level of discomfort and even acrimony between parents, teachers and the administration..

Reality dictates that every school has a cadre of parents who more often than not, micromanage the intellectual health, welfare and stability of the child. The challenge here is for the administration and faculty to determine the most effective way to guide, direct and manage these parents in a manner that is respectful and one that does not compromise the integrity or academic rigor, standards or culture of the school. Then, of-course, there are those parents in our day schools and yeshivot who are just completely “out of touch”

These ‘out-of-touch” parents drop off their children at school in the morning; pick them up from school at dismissal after school; have little to no interest or regard for the child’s academic progress; and, are more often than not AWOL for most parent/teacher meetings and conferences.

The only time these parents are remotely involved in the school or in the chinuch of their children is when the principal or head of school demands a one-on-one conversation with them in order to address a discipline issue or a learning, social or emotional concern. These conversations at times require a level of intervention, remediation or testing.

Parents who fall into this category, for a variety of reasons (for another post),  present significant challenges for our teachers and administrators who try tirelessly, passionately and proactively to engage them in the ongoing  educational progress and success of their children, but to no avail.

Finally, its important to note that these parents represent  a minority in our schools.

The Challenge Moving Forward into the Future…….

Schools, teachers and the administration must always be mindful, responsive and sensitive to the myriad of challenges facing their parent body. 

This challenge requires patience, respect, strategic thoughtfulness and a true desire and willingness to treat all parents equal – irrespective of status or disposition.

It is always much easier to just summarily dismiss those parents who are the most problematic and/or apathetic. But true school leadership are those who go the extra mile in order to understand, accommodate and resolve issues of crucial importance to its parent body, to the school and to the student.

As our schools move into the future, they will be challenged to provide their parent body with more direct parent education opportunities and engagement initiatives. Several schools are even considering offering mandatory parenting workshops and one-on-one parenting mentoring and coaching.

These activities will require significant time and school resources; as well as the engagement of highly trained and experienced family educators, counselors and facilitators with expertise in parenting best practices and parent engagement.

At the end of the day, quality parenting must become a top priority for our day school and yeshiva community; and, it must become an area of concern which requires and deserves our utmost focus and attention.

The Teacher/Faculty Workforce and Rabbeim

Educational personnel, whether they be rabbeim, teachers, morot, assistant teachers or teacher aides hold the key to effective education in our classrooms. To be sure, they are in fact the “first educational responders” for our students; and, are in the forefront of providing our students with knowledge, higher order problem-solving skills, insights, Jewish values and understanding.

This past year, the teacher workforce in a growing number of day school and yeshivot (as observed and as recently shared with me), experienced a year of relative calm, compared to two years ago when the COVID pandemic impacted negatively upon teacher performance, effectiveness, attendance and productivity.

This year, our community saw an increase in the number of educational personnel who participated in their individual, school-wide and communal professional growth and development initiatives; as well as more kodesh and chol faculty who sought to become more knowledgeable and familiar with new technological advances and digitized learning.

In addition, many schools this past year made concerted efforts to provide their faculty with mentors, coaches and curriculum consultants – all of whom will hopefully have a significant positive impact on the quality of chinuch. Time will tell.

As schools begin to learn (and adopt) more sophisticated early intervention approaches and policies, many of these teachers familiarized themselves with the proliferation of new and innovative teaching and learning tools. This has helped guide faculty in their efforts to respond more effectively to the myriad of  diverse learning and teaching challenges in the classroom.

Finally, based on feedback from may day school and yeshiva colleagues, this year, these schools appeared to have experienced an expansion and a proliferation of collaborative projects and team-building initiatives between faculty – a very positive and exciting development for many schools.

Challenges Moving Forward into the Future……

One of the most critical challenges facing our day school and yeshiva community is the growing paucity of qualified teacher personnel in both Judaic and general studies.

Over the past several years, this reality has morphed into a  challenge of crisis proportion. We are no longer recruiting and retaining high quality faculty; and fewer rabbeim and teachers are now opting to continue their teaching careers.

This reality is exacerbated further by offering faculty minimal salaries and poor health benefits packages when compared to public or other non-public schools, long hours, lack of public/communal recognition and very few career ladder/growth opportunities.

As our schools move forward into the future, this personnel crises will need to be addressed strategically and aggressively on the institutional and communal levels, lest we continue to experience a worsening  of this teacher personnel crisis – currently spiraling out of control.

As envisioned, our Jewish day schools and yeshivot will need to increase and adjust  the salaries of their teachers and rabbeim and other forms of compensation. These may include increased levels of tuition remission for the children of faculty; relocation allowances, bridge loans for the purchase of housing, sign-on bonuses and pensions; as well as added bonuses and  incentives to encourage and stimulate teacher availability and accessibility.

It is obvious that these activities will require an organized Jewish communal system and approach that increases its funding and  allocations to these institutions. This also suggests that schools must be challenged to leverage, raise and identify additional  philanthropic support designated specifically for these critically important  teacher personnel enhancements.

Administrative Leadership (Heads of School and Principals):

One of the most difficult, diverse, challenging multifaceted and multidimensional occupations in the communal world  today is that of the head of school and principal.

In addition to ensuring the vision, mission and direction of the school, they must guarantee that the school’s curriculum is continuously aligned with the goals of the school, ensure the engagement of high quality teachers and rabbeim; oversee student academic performance and progress; and, a host of other instructional leadership responsibilities in order to ensure that the school “trains are running on time”.

Heads of school and principals are for the most part highly trained professionals who in many cases exemplify outstanding leadership performance and reputations. Having said that, the average tenure for these senior leadership positions is less that five years – not necessarily a perfect picture of stability.

The variety of factors attributed to this turnover vary significantly –  way to numerous and detailed for this post.

Finally, the turnover rate, exacerbated by the stresses and strains on these senior leadership professionals, as reported through numerous  interviews, research papers, surveys, couching sessions  and testimonials, suggests a profession that is in a serious state of flux.

This reality has created a serious dearth of highly qualified heads of school and principals – unsurpassed in recent history. To be sure, there are an ever increased number of head of school and principal positions which to date have still not been permanently filled or are being filled with temporary, acting or interim leadership. This reality continues to plague many of our yeshiva and Jewish day schools; and, unless resolved can impact negatively on the future viability of theses institutions.

Challenges Moving Forward into the Future……….

There are currently a wide variety of impressive professional leadership development opportunities for heads of school and principals. (PRIZMAH, Torah Umesorah, Lookstein Center, colleges and universities, Consortium of Jewish Day Schools, to name a few)). However, given the proliferation of need and complexity, these services and training programs must be intensified and expanded. This includes programs which offer leadership coaching and mentoring as well as on-site and in-school  leadership guidance and consultation.

New heads of school and principals will require greater  access to these leadership venues and interventions; while more experienced and veteran school leaders should be provided with more infrastructure administrative support, greater flexibility, less micromanaging on the part of respective Boards and greater clarity regarding their executive requirements, expectations and responsibilities.

With regard to this later point, it is recommended that day school and yeshiva Boards engage in mandatory training and development programs as well as well designed rigorous onboarding processes.

Critical to the success of these Board engagement challenges will be to develop a level of clarity regarding the delineation of roles and responsibilities; and, the skill-sets necessary to assess and evaluate the performance and effectiveness of the school head or principal.

These are just several of the leadership and  governance challenges currently facing  school board which impact directly upon professional leadership and school effectiveness.

END NOTE:

It is interesting to note the the accomplishments of this past year, are almost juxtaposed by challenges for the future. This is not unusual, but it does warrant attention and review.

As our communities and institutions begin to document, promote and celebrate successful day school/yeshiva accomplishments and successes, they will also be challenged to seek  creative and meaningful ways to improve the quality, impact and effectiveness of this amazing institution.

What began as a communal experiment in the late 19th and early 20th century, has now evolved into one of the most successful  institutions in Jewish communal history. But, with this success comes. challenges.

The challenge moving forward will be to ensure our school’s vitality and viability. This will eventually require the leveraging of more resources over an extended period of time.

Finally, with the advent and evolution of educational technology, new modalities of teaching and learning as well as creative and innovative leadership models, our Jewish day schools and yeshivot will be in a far better position to succeed into the future.

This should be our primary goal and objective as we plan for the future of these institutions.

At the end of the day, its about quality teaching and learning; inspiring our students; and guaranteeing our holiest mission – the transmission of our knowledge, values and our mesorah.

We must cease this moment  as never before. Each year that goes by, is another year of opportunity to inspire and lead.

We can do this……let’s make it happen!

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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