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Chaim Y. Botwinick

The Senior Leadership Turnover Crisis in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot

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Everywhere we look today, in virtually every community in North America, the paucity of qualified and effective teachers is negatively impacting upon the quality of classroom instruction, student learning and in select cases, school growth and viability.

As we know, experienced and highly trained teachers and instructional personnel, whether they be Judaic or General Studies teachers, are critical to the success of our schools. To be sure, our teachers are the foundation of our educational enterprise, hold the key to effective schooling and are thus indispensable.

This reality has never been felt more dramatically than today, as our communities begin to experience one of the most dramatic teacher shortages in recent history.

In addition to this growing teacher personnel crisis, an increased number of Jewish Day schools and Yehivot are beginning to experience a staggering number of Head of School and Principal leadership vacancies. Many of these senior leadership vacancies are due in part to an increased number of planned and/or early (baby boomer) retirements, and other increased Head of School/Principal turnover factors.  This reality has serious implications for the current viability of our schools as well as their future growth, development and viability. To be sure, the continued lack of qualified teachers, coupled with increased Head of School and Principal turnover, has already created a perfect storm for educational mediocrity, indifference and ineffectiveness – a reality which is unacceptable in 2022-23.

The purpose of this post is not to address those factors attributed to ealy or planned retirement, but rather to take a closer examination and deeper dive into those factors which are attributed to “non retirement” executive turnover now plaguing our Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

The assumptions posited in this post are based upon a combination of empirical research data and anecdotal observations.

Several of these assumptions are also based on my professional experience as an executive coach for many Jewish day school and yeshiva heads and principals who have either left their posts prematurely, are in “executive transition”  or are considering changing schools, positions and careers.

Causes for Executive Turnover in our Jewish Day Schools/Yeshivot:

Although exact turnover figures fluctuate from year to year, according to our best estimates, the average tenure for a Jewish Day School Head or Principal is between 4-5 years (in his/her current school) compared to 12-14 years for public and other non public/private schools.

Many of the factors attributed to Head of School and Principal turnover in our day schools/yeshivot, include, but are not limited to: the need for higher levels of compensation and benefits, geographic (preference) location, job satisfaction, career changes, termination of contracts due to poor performance, or family and personal health considerations.

The fact that Jewish day school/yeshiva senior executive leadership occupy their posts for an average of 4-5 years, suggests a profession that is struggling from a lack of stability and one that  is in a state of flux. It also suggests the need for us to resolve this challenge post haste by engaging in serious and comprehensive communal review, reflection and debate.

A deeper dive into the factors attributed to this turnover suggests that many of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot may not be creating environments conducive for greater executive staff stability, longevity, retention or long-term commitments. In addition, many Heads of School and Principals are not enabling or pushing their respective schools or school Boards to help create environments or cultures which enhance greater executive stability and longevity.  This later point may be attributed to a conscious or subconscious hesitancy for School Heads or Principals to “rock-the-boat” between themselves  and their lay leadership. It may also be due to a lack of self-confidence required to engage school Board leadership in serious uncomfortable conversations. Finally, it may also be attributed to a personal or professional disposition of insecurity, and the Head of School’s or Principal’s inability to be more assertive in suggesting, recommending  and/or demanding the cultural or structural changes necessary for right-sizing the internal situation in the school.

According to Stephen Levin and Kathryn Bradley, from The Learning Policy Institute, March 19, 2018, most Heads of School and Principals leave their posts for the following five reasons:

  1. Inadequate preparation (experience) and professional development;
  2. Poor working conditions;
  3. Insufficient compensation packages;
  4. Lack of decision-making authority; and
  5. High stakes accountability policies

These 2018 findings are supported in part by an outstanding research report entitled “The Learning Leadership Landscape: Experience and Opportunities for Jewish Day School Personnel,” conducted by Rosov Consulting, commissioned by PRIZMAH and supported by the Avi Chai Foundation.

Although these data are somewhat dated, their findings as presented still hold true today and have become even more pronounced in today’s day school/yeshiva leadership environment.

Over the past several years, compensation levels and benefits packages for school heads and principals have improved significantly are are now quite competitive. In addition, there are more leadership training and development programs for heads of school and principals now being offered than any time in history.

That being the case, one needs to beg the question …in light of all the improvements, enhancements and incentives, why is day leadership turnover still so pronounced and increasing in our schools.

At the risk of oversimplifying the challenge or overstanding the case, I would like to respectfully posit that there is one “big elephant in the room” tht we always tip-toe around or shy away from….namely, the role and responsibility of school Board leadership and their interaction as well as relationship between school lay leadership and the professional leadership of the school.

Although the Rosov Report begins to address this challenge in two well-written brief sections entitled Toxic Board Cultures, and Concentrated Rather than Distributed Leadership, this challenge and topic deserves (even demands) greater review, clarity, debate and introspection.

Before the “deep-dive”  however, I would like to be perfectly clear and transparent by offering the following….

There are a select group of Jewish day schools and yeshivot that do in fact enjoy and celebrate amazingly effective and productive relationships between Board leadership and the head of School or Principal.  In these select cases,  many of these relationships are based upon mutual respect, trust, transparency, a shared vision and mission as well as the personal disposition and personality of the Board member and head of school. Having said that, they are sadly not representative of the overall majority of our Jewish day schools or yeshivot.

Throughout my executive coaching practice, I have found an increasing number of school heads and principals (irrespective of experience or expertise), who were so disappointed, turned-off or embittered by their relationship with their lay Board, that they opted to leave their posts prematurely; or conversely,  they were invited or encouraged to leave their posts by “disappointed” or “disenchanted”  Board members or members of the Board who we not satisfied with the school head’s professional performance, attitude of decision-making.

Although there is efficacy to both circumstances, the frequency of turnover due to the professional head’s disappointment or disillusionment with school Board leadership has increased significantly over the past several years.

Several reasons for this level of acrimony, disharmony and dissonance may be attributed in part to the need for a lay leadership’s need to micromanage the senior professional head, increased board expectations, especially in light of today’s higher compensation levels. In addition, Board expectations for immediate and instant results and perfection (as indicated in the Rosov report), as well as a display of impatience and various micromanagement styles, have negatively impacted on this critically important relationship.

Finally, it is important to note that the relationship between the Board and the senior professional school leader is a sine qua non for school effectiveness. It increases harmony, institutional stability,  positive impact, institutional shalom bayit and forward thinking policy and decision making. The opposite is unfortunately also true.

Implications and Several Recommendations:

It is important to note that the implications of the aforementioned realities strongly suggests the need for a paradigm shift in the manner in which senior school leadership and Board lay leadership interact, and relate to one another. It also suggests a major change in the lay/professional narrative and practice as it relates to differentiated roles, responsibilities, and boundaries of both lay and professional school leadership. Finally it’s important to note that the entire conversation regarding “turnover” is one which is symptomatic in nature and not the cause. In this case, it is symptomatic of a lay/professional relationship that is fragmented and one which is in dire need of repair.

In order to help ensure greater job satisfaction, longevity of service, enhanced professional growth, and success resulting in higher retention rates, it is recommended that the head of school/principal accept the notion that lay accountability and transparency is critical and absolutely essential; and, must be an accepted reality with no compromise. This mindset and expectation means that  the senior school professional  must be accountable to the Board, not unlike the manner in which a CEO is accountable to a company’s President or Chair of the Board. Plain and simple.

By the same token, it is also imperative for school Board lay leadership to understand, respect and appreciate the multidimensional responsibilities of the Head of School or Principal. In addition, although the school board member is a lay volunteer and should be respected as such, the head of school and principal are salaried professionals and have committed their careers and lives to their profession. It nevertheless does not give the Board member the license or authority to micromanage, control or interfere with the work, responsibility and authority of the head of school/principal, lest we continue to witness and experience a continued outmigration of professional leadership talent from our institutions. It is also critical that the senior profession head respect the role, responsibility and position of the Board lay volunteer.

Conclusion:

In order to enhance the role and relationship between the school board and head of school, with the hope of improving executive retention, thereby minimizing turnover, the following recommendations are in order:

It is imperative for the Head of School/Principal to address the anticipated relationship with the Board during the professional’s initial interview phase or when applying for the position. In addition to the standard written contract, provisions to safeguard against usurping the role of the head of school or micromanaging the school head by the school board is imperative. The head of school must therefore carefully spell out and ariculatre in detail his or her expectations, lines of demarcation and the boundaries of authority. Although this requirement may appear to be somewhat pedantic, obvious or pediatric, it does send out a very important and powerful message to the Board that these issues and concerns are real and are important enough to actually commit them to writing.

During the interview process, it is also imperative for the Head of School to meet privately with the school President or Chair of the Board as well as his or her Board successor. It is during these conversations that issues or concerns relating to internal management, authority, performance evaluations  and responsibility are to be addressed in depth.

In addition to the written contract, it is highly recommended that for the first several years of the head of school/principal’s tenure at the school, that both the head of school and school Board member actively participate in their own professional training and development. At times, these trainings will take place jointly; at other times separately….depending upon agenda and focus.

In order for these training sessions to me meaningful, it is recommended that an executive coach be assigned to both the head of school and the school Board Chair or President.  This coach will ensure a smooth executive transition between the Head of School and the School Board. It will also allow a third party to help facilitate the professional relationship, as required.

Parenthetically, the the entire Board of Directors should also be required to participate in continuous training and development opportunities throughout the year.

Postscript: 

Reality dictates that irrespective of these aforementioned safeguards and practices, “stuff will happen”. This means that new Board members with different temperaments, aspirations, personalities, expectations and agendas will come and go. It also means that in order for the Head of School or Principal (the one constant in this equation) to withstand these resulting highs and lows, he or she must learn to be resilient, nimble, patient and flexible. It is also strongly suggested that the Head of School will need to rough-out a micromanaging Board member with the hope and trust that his or her lay successor will be more polished, professional and aligned with best/model governance practice.

The evolving role and responsibility of today’s Head of School or Principal is daunting at best. To be sure, it is not a profession or career for everyone. Ergo, the high executive turnover.

At best, we are  hopeful that as the Head of School leadership vacuum deepens and widens, school boards and communities will take heed, Is this an ideal or preferred way to build a profession or lead a school? Probably not. But for today and for the foreseeable future, we have very little choice.

Let’s hope that this professional/lay narrative will improve over time, thereby creating a community of mutual respect, trust and above all a level of derech eretz commensurate with the values of chinuch in our Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

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