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Chaim Y. Botwinick
Chaim Y. Botwinick

So You Want To Be A Jewish Day School/Yeshiva Principal?

“A leader should never try to be all things to all people.. A leader should                                    be content to be what he or she is. Leaders must have the strength to                                        know what they cannot be if they are to have the courage to be                                                  themselves” — Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

For over 25 years, I have had the wonderful honor to mentor and coach many Yeshiva Day School senior executives – from aspiring and well established Heads of School to Principals and Department Heads. During this period of time, I have had the privilege to serve in senior Jewish communal posts – including Head of School, consultant to schools and CEO for several educational nonprofits.

My ongoing question of why and how people aspire to Yeshiva and Head of School professional leadership positions is motivated in part by what I see as the current personnel leadership crisis in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot….including the lack of experienced and qualified senior professionals entering the field; and, the more recent  leadership turnover which many of our schools are currently experiencing.

Irrespective of whether the current pandemic is a contributing factor to this recent turnover phenomena is a perplexing question and hypothesis, yet to be proven. Nevertheless, the reality of increased numbers of current and anticipated senior leadership vacancies in these institutions is daunting and at times staggering.

A deep-dive into this area of concern suggests that the field of Jewish Day School/Yeshiva education is in a significant state of flux. To help resolve this issue, many communities are seeking solutions through the creation of accelerated leadership training tracks and programs, internships, the provision of increased financial incentives and benefits (housing subsidies and sign-on bonuses), and more conducive working environments complimented by the creation of a communal culture which demands an investment of significant time, energy, and philanthropic resources in order to meet this challenge.

In recognition of this continued crisis, just this past weekend, the Torah Umesorah Presidents Conference which took  place in Miami, devoted most of its agenda to this topic – with a host of recommendations, suggestions, proposals, commitments and resolutions to improve and enhance the financial status and condition of our Yeshiva and Day School teachers and administrators.  What makes this conversation even more critical than in prior years is that the very stability and viability of our institutions are now at risk….especially in a post pandemic environment.

In summary, our field is currently witnessing  an increased precedent-setting leadership crisis, exacerbated by fewer educators entering the field. To be sure, many of those who do occupy these critically important leadership  positions were (at one point in their careers) excellent teachers….but, unfortunately they were rewarded for their classroom teaching excellence by being “promoted out of the classroom” to higher paying leadership (read administrative) posts. At best, not a very promising or bright prospect for the future of our day schools…or for creating career ladders for our teachers or administrators..

Today, Heads of School and Principals are enjoying significantly higher compensation and benefits packages than ever before in history. The impact of compensation on recruitment and retention of Principals is a topic for another BLOG. Nevertheless, in spite of this reality, we are still unable to  attract and retain high quality leadership personnel . This may be due in large measure to a lack of professional expectations, skills-set, training and experience; as well as a lack of support and understanding regarding the normative everyday roles, demands and responsibilities of the today’s Jewish Day School Principal.

The Yeshiva/Day School Principalship: Strengths, Weaknesses and Opportunities

When painting a portrait of the ideal Yeshiva/Day School Principal, one begins to understand and appreciate the fact  that being an effective high-performing  Principal  is one of the most challenging, exciting, stressful, demanding and  exhilarating positions in the world of Jewish nonprofits. It is for this very reason that great Principals spend a tremendous amount of time listening and observing students, teachers, parents, board members, other administrates and educational researchers. This kind of listening goes far beyond simply paying attention while others talk. It requires tremendous intuitive insight, a deeper understanding of a speakers motivations, listening for what they are not saying and asking powerful questions.

The next important attribute or characteristic of an effective Principal is his/her ability and capacity to create and inspire a positive climate and environment of educational excellence through modeling, inspiring, motivating and providing best practice opportunities in leadership and management. But above all, for the Principal to succeed, he/she must have a burning passion and love for student learning, growth and development as well as for model teaching. This is especially critical in  our Jewish Day School or Yeshivot where Jewish values, norms, standards and religious philosophy and beliefs are paramount.

An effective Principal must always focus on instruction. In fact, instruction is probably one of the most important aspects of a Principal’s commitment to educational excellence – whether it be in Judaic or General Studies. “Instruction” should be viewed not only as a curricular activity in the classroom, but as an imperative for a Principal’s  persona,  behavior, attitude and style of leadership. It must reflect  and personify the school’s hashkafa, its mission and direction. . These activities activities are referred to as “the hidden curriculum” –  the critically important unwritten, unofficial lessons, values and perspectives that students learn in school. They may include public expressions of derech eretz, exemplary middot, kavod, ahavat yisroel, chesed, shmirat haLashon and being a yirat shamayim. All of these values, standards and attributes must be exemplified by the school’s faculty and staff…and modeled by the school’s Principal. They represent yet another series of important  intrinsic responsibilities,  obligations and commitment which are intrinsic to the Principal’s leadership and influence in the School.

Principals Research strongly suggests and supports the idea that outhandling Principals continuously demonstrate leadership in five discrete yet interrelated areas or disciplines: vision, culture, delegation, instruction and data driven policy and  decision making. Many of these responsibilities,  attributes and characteristics are learned through experience or through an innate ability and capacity to lead, inspire and manage. Fortunate are the Principals  who posses the innate ability and capacity  to understand, appreciate, and celebrate these important dimensions of their work.

Finally, it is important to note that the success  of the Jewish Day School/Yeshiva Principal greatly depends  upon  his/her  training and experience as well as an ability, capacity and bandwidth to effectively  multitask throughout the day. To be sure, Principals who are single focused will have a very difficult time trying to succeed in an ever-changing dynamic environment.

The ever-increasing demands now being placed on the Principal (as leader, manager, counselor, surrogate parent, etc….) are daunting at best. They represent a microcosm of the challenges and exigencies now being confronted in our society, communities and homes. A school’s responsible response to the challenges of social media technology, single-parent families, the over indulgent behavior of the privileged, students with exceptionalities, families living at the poverty level and mental health concerns on the student and faculty levels – are just a few of the ever-increasing challenges facing 21st century Day Schools and Yeshivot.  The evolving role of the Principal is not to be an expert in every discipline, but to have the wherewithal, creativity, knowledge and wisdom to seek out appropriate resources and leadership in response to these ever growing concerns.

At the Crossroads:

Whether you are a seasoned well established Principal at the height of your career, or a novice administrator just now entering the leadership field – the responses or questions for both are the same. Namely, do I have the right “stuff” in order to be impactful, effective and successful.?  If the answer to this question is less then affirmative, then it is your obligation and responsibility to pursue other career opportunities. But if your response is affirmative, but conditional upon your sincere willingness to pursue additional professional development, coaching, mentoring or guidance – than go for it.

Unfortunately, high quality Principals are not flooding our Yeshiva/Day School market.  But, maybe with GD’s help one day they will. So as long as demand outweighs supply, its incumbent upon all of our communities to ensure that we have the “best and brightest” leading our schools. Anything less is totally not acceptable or negotiable.

So when you ask yourself if you should enter the field or remain in the field, please drill down bit deeper into your heart and soul, look and understand your strengths and weaknesses, and above all, identify your true passion.

I am confident that you will fine the right answer.

B’hatzlacha.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, 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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