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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Welcome Back: An “Open Letter” to Jewish day school heads and principals

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Over the past several weeks, as we approached the beginning of a new school year, I received  numerous calls and emails  from colleagues and friends in day school leadership positions regarding their start- of-school challenges, dilemmas, and challenges. Some of the issues are complex and somewhat complicated, others are obvious, but required a level validation and guidance.

As I  reflected upon these critically important inquiries and conversations, it dawned on me as to how potentially beneficial or valuable it may be to share these concerns with others through this blog.  As they say, one person’s challenge may be another person’s insight or good fortune.

So, in the spirit of  sharing, the following is a Back to School Open Letter written specifically to and for my Jewish day school and yeshiva leadership friends and colleagues who are tasked with the exciting and daunting responsibility to lead and inspire their schools, students and faculty as they return from summer vacation. In recognition of the fact that their are a wide range of leadership experiences and expertise in the field, I am hopeful that by sharing these challenges in this blog, that others will benefit from them as well.

                    To: Day School and Yeshiva Heads of  School, Principals and Colleagues:

Shalom U’vracha.

In full recognition of the fact that many of you may either be  relatively new to your respective leadership positions, or are experienced veterans, I  write this Open Letter with tremendous kavod  and respect for all of you…..for what you do, for all that you represent and for your unswerving passion, dedication and commitment to day school and yeshiva education and chinuch.

As you prepare for the coming school year, each of you are experiencing a myriad of thoughts, emotions, and challenges – from being preoccupied and concerned about student placement and teacher assignments, to ensuring that your classroom environments and physical spaces are conducive to effective teaching and learning; from responding to the need for substitute faculty to obsessing over parental requests for last minute meetings and conferences with the administration; from sleepless nights worrying about the abundance of back ordered textbooks, workbooks and supplies (due to supply-chain deficits) to the last minute rush to ensure a more simplified and smooth school bus/van transportation route as well as seamless carpool pick-up and drop off  schedules.

All of these challenges (and more) don’t even begin to address the host of concerns relating to staff and teacher supervision, the alignment of curricular goals with required lesson and unit planning, an agreed upon school-wide grading system, the implementation of mandatory cell phone and electronic device policies (and consequences), new and updated dress code compliance requirements, new guidelines for documenting and servicing students with exceptionalities,  and the planning and scheduling of exciting and meaningful professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.

In spite of  these leadership tasks and responsibilities, it is imperative that you set aside time to sleep, eat and exercise as much as you possibly can …..and, of course you must be available and accessible to your families and to their personal  needs and requirements.

Truth be told my friends, I cannot  think of a more stressful, difficult and demanding job than that of a head of school or principal of a day school/yeshiva. To suggest that as senior professionals  you are required to juggle and keep all the balls in the air at the same time, would be an understatement of epic proportion. You aspire to be masterful in what you do and deserve tremendous hakaros hatov for your impressive unswerving leadership and commitment to your jobs. This does not include your tremendous passion for academic excellence which you continuously promote, support, encourage and celebrate.

A sincere and heartfelt Yasher Koach!

So, what are the emerging hot-spot imperatives and concerns which heads of school and principals must address as you start a new school year ?

The following are select areas which many of you shared with me (as your coach and colleague) over the past several weeks. I am also taking the liberty of sharing  several thoughts, responses and suggestions in response to these inquiries. Some of these challenges and responses may be fundamental, obvious and familiar; others may be unique.

Time Management:

This is a big deal….

As the leader who is positioned at the very top of your school’s organizational  pyramid, it is absolutely essential that you manage your time wisely. To be sure, please be certain that you are allocating sufficient quality time and energy to highest priority areas, and less time to those that are of lesser importance. Only you as school leader has the ultimate control over how you spend your precious time.

More often than not, many heads of school and principals, like most folks, spend their  precious time doing the things they enjoy the most. This can be distracting and has the potential to be disastrous when leading schools. Quality time must be allocated to high priority areas; and if you as a school leader do not address these tasks directly and in a timely manner, they will eventually snowball and cascade into an avalanche of uncontrollable proportion. Please don’t run that risk. The result can be costly on many levels. And, please, never push off to tomorrow those tasks, assignments and responsibilities which you can do  today. As we know, tomorrow may bring other unexpected or unanticipated demands on your time which will only impact negatively on your time and planned scheduled  commitments.

Treat your time with respect. You are only being given one shot to do what needs to be accomplished.  Like I advise many colleagues, you cant “management or control the clock on the wall, or the watch on your wrist” ……. there are only 24 hours in the day. But you can try to manage and control  how you spend your time. Moreover, its not only about the amount of time you spend on a task but rather the quality of time on task. This is not about semantics, but real time reality.

Accessibility and Availability:

As school leaders, it is essential that you continuously maintain a highly visible profile  throughout the school. This means visiting classrooms and the dining hall or cafeteria  frequently; and walking the corridors in order to take the temperature of student behavior and decorum. Visit the playground and faculty lounge while talking with students and faculty…  and always be on time for scheduled meetings with teachers, staff, parents, students and visitors. It may be a great idea to shoot a few basketball hoops, catch and throw a football  with students or kick that soccer ball down the field. Let your students and faculty know, see and feel that you are “with the program”  and that you really want to connect with your students. This is not about acting cool, or impressing students and faculty… but rather about being  present in the lives of students and faculty on school campus.

Parenthetically, I will never ever forget how I am my classmates felt when our rebbe joined us for a 15 minute game of basketball. It was fun and  memorable and above all, it created a very special connection and healthy bonding opportunity between the students and the rebbe.

Another rule of thumb is never stay boxed in or confined to your office for long periods of time. It creates  a physical and psychological barrier between you and your teachers and students as well as degrees of  distance and separation between you and the rest of the school.

Please keep in mind that scheduled and planned breaks are critical. As part of your daily routine,  you must schedule your own breaks throughout the day. Running a school is like running on a hamster’s wheel….it continues and continues, and goes round and round, until you decide to temporarily push the pause or stop button. But, only you are in control of how often and when that pause bottom is pushed.

Finally, the one area of scheduling and accessibility which is sacrosanct is the time you allocate to teacher supervision, coaching, mentoring or counseling. Always start and end these meetings on time. It is important to respect your staff’s time, focus and attention.. Parenthetically, please always be prepared for these meetings, take copious notes at these meetings and always be certain that there is an action item or an important meeting “take-away” at the conclusion of the meeting. This also includes  the scheduling of follow-up meetings, depending upon the agenda.

Another rule of thumb: Your faculty and staff will always know and recognize when you are not prepared for these meetings. After a while, the lack of preparation erodes interest, respect and interest. Never wing it.

Staff and Teacher Conferences and Group Faulty Meetings:

Not unlike the meetings you may have with individual teachers and staff,  total staff and faculty meetings and conferences must all start on time, they require a well defined and detailed agenda which should be distributed in advance of the meeting; and, all of the meetings should include at least one or two action items.

Several other critically important aspects of  staff and faculty meetings is the need to be certain that a member of your administrative team or faculty are taking minutes or notes of the meeting; and. never spend precious time at these meetings reviewing or announcing administrative items. These administrivia should be committed to an email or to an administrative memorandum  and should  never encroach on time designated  for total faculty or staff. meetings. There will of course always be acceptations via last minute items that require urgent and time-sensitive responses …..and, therefore may require immediate attention.

Finally, it is essential that you utilize these meetings as valuable opportunities and as vehicles to address and discuss  important best practices, trends and new developments in education, curricular challenges and policies…… or to celebrate school-related accomplishments and milestones. Remember, time is precious; each of your staff are overwhelmed with important tasks and responsibilities. Try to make  these meetings, impactful, inspiring, worthwhile and meaningful. You may even want to devote some time at these meeting to highlight and/or  showcase school select successes and/or accomplishments.

Once again, remember, you are the leade,r siting in the leader’s seat. Lead these meetings with a high energy level that is contagious, inspiring and engaging. Motivate your staff to look forward to the next total staff/faculty meeting,; and provide all of your staff and faculty with a schedule for future meetings moving forward.

Although each school culture is different and unique, my preference has always been to schedule these meetings either first thing in the morning when everyone is fresh and alert, or during a school sponsored lunch. Only under extraordinary circumstances would I suggest that these meetings be schedule at the end of the day.  By the end of the day however, teachers and staff are tired, easily distracted and have their minds focused on the commute home. Therefore, total faculty and staff meetings which take place at the end of the day have a tendency to drag on. This can be disengaging, especially after a long day of teaching, meetings and administrative activity.

In addition to these standard scheduled meetings, try to plan a faculty and staff  retreat at least twice a year – one in the beginning of the year; and one at the conclusion of the year. Having these  full day retreats off school campus affords staff  the opportunity to be less encumbered with distractions and helps create an environment which is more conducive to reflection, learning, collaboration  and sharing.

 Individual Supervisory Meetings with Departments Heads, Coordinators or Faculty:

One of the most important leadership responsibilities of the head of school or principal is that of mentor, coach and supervisor.

For many faculty and staff,  private individual supervisory meetings with the head of school and/or principal are paramount. They provide your teachers and staff with invaluable feedback, advice and counsel. They should focus primarily upon  improvement opportunities and how to enhance or improve  the performance and impact of the teacher or staff member.

Always provide  your teachers and staff with examples of how to improve their craft and always require that they take notes during these meetings.  It is imperative that you congratulate and celebrate their important accomplishments by pointing out those areas of performance – whether they be in the classroom, at an assembly or group activity, and where the teacher or staff member exhibited exemplary teaching or instructional leadership.

Finally, always try to keep in mind that for most of the individuals you are supervising, they look up to you for valuable guidance and feedback. Be direct, circumspect and respectful and never ever be condescending or  dismissive, irrespective of  circumstance. Every time you have a meeting with supervisory or performance implications, be certain that the individual is aware of the next scheduled meeting with you so that  there is continuity and follow-up.  By doing do you are providing your teachers and staff with an expectation and a trajectory commensurate with the conversation and area of need or concern.

Please, always make sure that these meetings are scheduled way in advance. Schedule all individual faculty and staff meetings in the beginning of the year for at least the first two semesters (out of four).

Meetings with Parents:

More often that not, parents will request meetings with the head of school or principal in order to address a pressing concern regarding their child. These are critically important meetings which warrant serious attention. Many of them are also relatively straight forward and not encumbered with complex circumstances.

Always do your homework before these meetings.  This means consulting with your faculty, developing a clear sense as to why parents want to meet; and their agenda. A comprehensive review of the child’s past history (academic, social and emotional) at the school  will also help inform the conversation. This information should always be available prior to these meetings.

When the school  administration and faculty does its “homework” prior to these meetings, it creates confidence, trust and transparency.

More often than not,  I would suggest that the parent(s) first meet with their child’s teachers, rabbeim  and supervisor. This saves a lot of precious time, enabling  the school to be more responsive to the needs of the parents and student.

A meeting with the head of school is usually required only if there is an impasse or in cases where the presence of school leadership becomes essential. Each head of school and principal must use their best judgement regarding this important judgement call.

Once these meetings are documented on an SIS  (student information system) digital platform, it is imperative that the Administration follow up with a letter to parents. The letter should include the reasons for the meeting and strategies moving forward. It is also imperative that the school follow up with the parents at an agreed upon interval in order to determine whether the issue was resolved an/or to determine next steps.

Always keep in mind that parents are our clients. They must be treated with upmost derech eretz and respect, irrespective of their attitude, demeanor or approach. Since parents serve in lay capacities, depending upon the issue, it may be advisable to brief the chair of your board or president regarding the issue at hand.

Responding to the wide array of  parental needs is not an easy task. To be sure, it takes experience, unlimited patience and above all a true willingness to rise above the fray in order to address the issue at hand, Always park your personal feelings about the issue as well as your ego at the door. By doing so, you will have a far greater chance at resolving the issue with a level of shalom bayit between the school and parents.

Curriculum Alignment and Lesson/Unit Plan Requirements:

One of the most fundamental challenges in leading a school is the need to ensure that the institution has well defined  grade-specific curricular goals and objectives which are supported by a competent faculty.

I am hopeful that your schools possess grade level curricula goals and expectations and that each of your teachers are prepared with their respective lesson and unit plans  But, this requirement, as many of us know well,  is only half the challenge.

As we know well, a clearly defined articulation of curricular goals, no matter how state-of- the art or impressive they may appear to be on paper, are only as effective, useful or impacttful as the faculty who are tasked with teaching and instruction. It is therefore imperative that in the beginning of the year, your teachers are well prepared in this critical area; and, are held accountable throughout the year for teaching subject matter which is approved and validated by the school administration. This holds true for both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol. 

When there are instances where teachers are relatively new to their teaching environments and assignments, the principal must ensure that they receive guidance and assistance. These may take the form of one-on-one consulting with the teacher, the pairing of novice teachers wiith a more experienced or veteran teacher; and, the offering of either real-time or virtual professional development training and development sessions for new, entry-level  and/or novice teachers.

As you begin to move in this direction, please be certain your school has the budget and resources required for these training sessions and interventions. The resources expended on these challenges will be the best dollars your school expends and/or allocates as you begin your school year.

Finally, in an ideal environment, these novice teachers should  be compensated to participate in a variety of summer institutes or in service training workshops – all in preparation for the new school year.

Once these training opportunities are completed, the head of school and/or principal must identify the resources needed to help engage and anchor a master teacher or curriculum coordinator to oversee and evaluate all aspects of teaching and instruction in your school.

School Board Engagement:

Whether you were recently hired by your board or are a veteran head of school, it is important to always understand, appreciate and respect the role of your school board as well as the differentiated roles and responsibilities of board member and the head of school

The number of papers, articles and books devoted to this topic has grown exponentially over the past decade. This is due in large measure to the complex nature of the board/head of school relationship and its potential impact on school effectiveness and progress.

The following is a brief listing of challenges you should always keep in mind when working with your Board.

  1.  Always keep your board informed. They by nature do not invite or appreciate surprises;
  2. Be certain and confident that the board is aware of your work plan for the coming school year, and if required, make the changes or modifications they suggest, prior to moving forward;
  3. The board is responsible for budget oversight, policy-setting  and the annual  performance review and assessment of the head of school; Invite these performance assessments and embrace their results and findings;
  4.  The board provides leadership in the areas of fundraising and financial resource develop in partnership with the head of school and other senior development staff; invite and embrace this partnership as well as the  board’s collaborative fundraising efforts;
  5. Members of your board are school trustees and ambassadors and must be viewed as such;
  6. Always maintain close communication with your President/Chair of the Board and executive committee. To be successful, these relationship must be based on trust, transparency and accountability.
  7. You may want to arrange a full-day retreat in order to engage your board in an in-depth conversation regarding their respective roles and responsibilities. It is best that an outside consultant be engaged to  facilitate these conversations.

End Note:

There are many important areas of concern which warrant significant attention, but, are way too expansive for this Open Letter. They may include but not be limited to: students with special learning needs and exceptionalities; financial resource development and tuition affordability; community relations to name a few. It is hoped that these challenges will be addresses by consulting with experienced colleagues, coaches or leaders in the field.

As you embark upon the new school year,  please keep in mind that you are not alone in this critically important leadership journey. When and where necessary, reach out to friends and colleagues for advice; engage a coach and or participate in your own professional develop program. Its never too late. Fortunate is the leader who seeks help and guidance from others.

Finally, the one important value to keep in mind throughout your entire leadership journey is that your mission as a head of school or principal should always be values-driven and that those values should be anchored and embedded in your deep and profound commitment to the welfare of your staff and student and their families.

In conclusion, I do sincere hope and trust that the ideas and suggestions contained herein, are valuable, helpful and informative,

As you begin the new school year, I hope and pray that you all be blessed with bracha and hatzlacha. And, may Hashem bless all of  you with the ability and wisdom  to lead your institutions through wise choices and decisions,

Best of luck and 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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