The case for day schools
”The world endures only for the breath of the school children,” stated Reish Lakish [BT Shabbat 119b]. This quintessentially Jewish teaching weaves family, education and the future into a lyrical portrait of continuity. Maimonides cites this passage in the mandate to establish Jewish schools “in every state, in every district and in every city.” Our best insurance policy is educating the next generation. God, in one talmudic parable, is asked how a Divinity spends time. It’s a fair question. God, it turns out, is busy in the fourth hour of the day teaching school children [BT Avodah Zarah 3b]. Imagine God as your homeroom teacher.
We’re hitting the season of school registration when parents decide to stay or try a new option. No decision may be more important to the life of a family than where your children go to school. It can determine your choice of neighborhood, your choice of friends, and the kind of moral universe you want to build together. So indulge me for a few minutes.
Please consider a Jewish day school education. If you’re thinking of pulling your kid out, please reconsider. Education involves more slow-cooking than microwave cooking. The fruits of day school education are cumulative. Parents and kids tend to think short-term about schooling. And you don’t need to be religious to want a warm, loving, values-based school community for yourself and your children.
I know this well because I entered day school at 16. I could barely write my name in Hebrew. Most day schools do a terrific job transitioning students like me and welcoming families new to Judaism or observance. When it came to where to send our children, there was never a doubt. Is it expensive? Crushingly so. Yet it’s our finest and proudest investment.
I came from a fancy prep school, but worked harder in day school. The rigor of the day over-prepared me for the demands of university. We have research from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center that day school graduates achieve among the highest levels of academic success. Central to that is the confidence these schools instill in their students to handle a serious workload. We talk a lot about resilience in education. Look at the stamina of day school students. They come early, leave late, balance a dual curriculum, and heap on extra-curricular activities.
The dual curriculum and language requirements help prepare the groundwork for critical thinking. I picked up the Jewish propensity to ask questions in English, math, history and science, but probably most in Talmud. The close reading of text in Bible helped me in AP literature and in valuing the interpretive process. Day school exposed me to a Jewish life that was sophisticated, embracing and challenging.
Day school also gave me a treasured group of friends, decent human beings who cared about each other and now care about the world. The Cohen Center study above demonstrated that day school graduates in college were less likely to engage in risky behavior, and after college were more likely to volunteer, to find careers that helped people, and to devote themselves in and outside of work to making a difference in society.
And how many people can say almost 35 years after graduation they are still in touch with some of their high school teachers? My teachers were mission driven. They wanted to grow us as students, caring most about our moral fiber and the totality of our lives.
Day schools offer living wisdom and a soul-stretching education I couldn’t find where I was. Prep school prepared me well for individual achievement. But day school gave me my first-ever community. It taught me to live responsibly in an I-Thou space. It’s no surprise that research done by the Avi Chai Foundation showed an over-representation of day school graduates in leadership positions. When Jewish organizations need leaders, chances are they’ll be filling slots with day school graduates.
Parents usually have three central concerns about schooling: Will my child get into a university of choice? Will my child be socially well-adjusted and achieve his or her personal best? And lastly, will my child embody the values we as a family hold dear? Let’s reverse the order of these questions. Nothing will make you prouder than raising a spiritual child who embodies compassion, uses good judgment, chooses good friends who are good people, advocates justice in the world at large… and gets into a good college.
In education, there is no one-size-fits-all. Discerning parents realize that day school deserves a fair hearing. You might find, as I did, that no single decision has done more to craft a life of meaning for a family. The best case for day school is not what it delivers short-term. It’s the life it delivers long after graduation.
Inspiring Innovation in Jewish Day Schools
In a time when children pick up so much about their environment accidentally, Jewish education encourages decision-making and relationship building intentionally.
Maintenance learning is “the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods and rules for dealing with known and recurring situations.” We have an established way of life, and we maintain that through inculcating people into accepted practices, rituals and the values of that lifestyle.
We know that much of both education and leadership within Jewish day schools is centered on maintenance learning. We have chosen a particular Jewish lifestyle and want the classroom to be a place that is informed by those values. We expect teachers and administrators to conform to certain norms and also to transmit them. Living in a general culture that places individual autonomy above community and consumer empowerment above spiritual development, we know better than to take our values for granted. In a time when children pick up so much about their environment accidentally, Jewish education encourages decision-making and relationship building intentionally. Maintenance learning can be a formidable challenge in a society that maintains competing values.
Bennis describes shock learning as exactly the opposite of maintenance learning. It is the study of and reaction to situations and experiences that are out of the ordinary. They may be tragic or remarkably touching or overwhelming; they are experiences of intensity that may call into question the very norms that we have established so carefully in maintenance learning. No learning community can avoid shock learning because it emerges out of the unpredictability of life itself. We have an obligation to prepare our students for moments that surprise or confuse us, whether such times are as “anticipated” as becoming a parent or losing a parent (becoming a parent or losing a parent is always a shock), or global terrorism.
Taken together, maintenance and shock learning create a balance, preparing us for that which is expected in life while offering skills for navigating the ambiguities we will encounter along the way.
And yet, this research in learning calls both of these methods conventional. Bennis recommends a different approach, innovative learning, which rests on three central principles:
Anticipation: being active and imaginative rather than passive and habitual;
Receptivity: learning by listening to others;
Participation: sharing events rather than being shaped by them.
These qualities rely less on molding the student through texts and experiences than on empowering the student to be engaged actively in the learning process. Innovative learning moves us beyond material and reactions to events within or beyond our control. It asks us to embrace what we learn by taking charge of our learning, while including and collaborating with others.
Arguably one of the most significant roles for educational leaders is creating and sustaining multiple modalities of learning within school environments. The day school is no different. In many ways, because of the propensity of maintenance learning in Jewish day schools, we have to be more conscious of innovative learning or the absence of it. It is too easy to create passive students and teachers when the material you are teaching may be over two thousand years old and when replicating patterns of learning that are just as old. Because of the strong precedent of the rabbi/talmid relationship, we may demand that our students listen more than our teachers listen. In prayer and special events, we may expect our students to conform and be shaped by an experience rather than have them take ownership and shape the experiences. We make demands of day school students that rely a great deal on their patience or a maturity they have not yet developed. We do not check in frequently enough with them as inherent boredom monitors.
The most basic definition of a leader is one who has followers. People may follow a leader out of forced conformity or out of love and inspiration. If we are prepared to ask ourselves some difficult questions about day school education today, we cannot avoid the question of what kind of learning educational leaders in our schools are promoting. Is it maintenance learning with the shock provisos when appropriate, or is it truly innovative? Do we pay lip service to words like “innovation” and “transformation” but retreat to our old ways out of fear or reverence, or are words like this actually descriptive of what we do and think?
Some of our American Jewish day schools have been around for more than 60 years. They have serviced their communities well, but have they changed significantly in curricular approaches from when they began decades earlier? We have had sea changes in approaches to education, yet not enough of this language of change has trickled into the Jewish classroom or the Judaic studies faculty, in particular. It may be that the headmaster or principal uses different language while the faculty as a whole are not moving in any new direction. It may be that one member of the constellation of teacher/child/parent in the learning world of Judaism has not been informed or is distrustful of taking educational risks to make school a more exciting and vibrant place to learn.
Managers maintain the status quo. They follow orders and make sure that we all observe the rules and policies or an organization. In Jewish terms, they create seder or order. They are less concerned with the day-to-day running of an institution than with the vision of where their institution should go in the future. Leaders must be risk takers and innovators. If they can inspire and persuade us with their vision, all the better. But too many people in leadership roles in education act as managers and not as leaders and visionaries.
Every day we are ushering our children into a brave new world. It is a global world and one where technology and methods of communication are constantly changing. The Jewish day school can be a protected haven against these changes. It also has to be adaptive, growing and accommodating these changes. Day school leaders, both lay and professional, can fight change or nurture change, but none of us can ignore it. Leading in this landscape is not merely about being in a position of power; it is about creating a posture of influence where learning is dynamic and innovative.
The “All Chiefs” Crisis in Education
When I was a kid I distinctly remember sitting on the stairs with trepidation, awaiting my report from parent-teacher conferences.
As a people, we have never been great followers. We all think we are leaders. Part of the problem is that we often lack the self-awareness to acknowledge that our “followship” lacks a service dimension and that we criticize leaders to a point of paralysis. For a classic example of this, we turn to the Book of Joshua, where this new leader is assured that the people will follow him with the ironic claim, “We will obey you just as we obeyed Moses” (1:17). Anyone vaguely familiar with Moses’ leadership arc in the Bible has to scratch a head. Was there ever a time that we listened to Moses without contention and complaint? Take back that offer, please.
Perhaps nowhere today is this problem more acute than in the sphere of Jewish education. Parents have become consumers rather than stakeholders in their local day schools and are quick to send off a nasty e-mail or tell a teacher what to do during a parent-teacher conference. Consumers return what they don’t like. Stakeholders partner to fix it, respecting expertise and following policy governance boundaries. As a board member in my own children’s school, I recall a conversation with an irate parent whose child did not get the history teacher she wanted: “I’ve decided I am not paying this semester’s tuition bill unless she gets into that class. Money is the only language the school understands.” Yikes!
When I was a kid I distinctly remember sitting on the stairs with trepidation, awaiting my report from parent-teacher conferences. Today, the people who are most afraid are the teachers. They often feel themselves under siege from parents who claim to know how to teach and manage a classroom better than they do. This failure to recognize and appreciate teacher and administrator expertise has brought the capacity to partner in the practice of education to an all-time low. It is a failure of trust, and it has severe consequences.
Ron Clark, an “American Teacher of the Year” and the author of The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck, recently shared a conversation he had with a beloved, award-winning principal who is leaving the profession. When he begged her to stay, this is what she told him: “Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.”
Clark writes that most teachers stay in the profession only 4.5 years, and many of them list that the negativity they experience from parents is pushing them into other professions, even though they love teaching. Parent management is just too difficult and not something they thought they had to master when entering the field.
Here is one of Clark’s recommendations to parents: “If we give you advice, don’t fight it. Take it, and digest it in the same way you would consider advice from a doctor or lawyer.” He finds it exhausting to tell a parent that a child has an issue when all they do is fight back and defend their kid. “Trust us,” he asks with a hint of desperation in his words.
There is another framework in which to understand what is happening in the classroom, care of a new word in leadership lingo: the multiplier. Derived from Liz Wiseman’s book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, the term describes a certain type of person who encourages innovative thinking and growth by assuming the intelligence of other people. Wiseman describes the way that the multiplier sees others: “There are smart people everywhere who will figure this out and get smarter in the process.” Because multipliers are intellectually and emotionally generous, they seek to bring people together to create more wisdom and generate more ideas. The multiplier attracts talent and develops it, making sure that people are not underutilized. The multiplier also gives other people credit and ownership over ideas.
Wiseman contrasts this with the diminisher personality who creates a tense environment that suppresses people’s thinking and ability. He or she hoards resources and underutilizes talent. Often diminishers are micro-managers with very low trust in others. Where the multiplier will often say “yes” to a new idea or initiative, we can predictably expect a “no” from a diminisher.
We want the teachers and administrators of our day schools to be multipliers. We want them to see the native talents of our kids and grow it. We want our children to take ownership of ideas and feel empowered by partnerships with other students. But we cannot grow multipliers in the classroom when we have troops of diminishers outside of it. The multiplier cannot thrive in an environment of negativity. The multiplier will sooner leave than live with the depressing and limiting environment created by diminishers.
We have to push back on the negativity and hold up a mirror to the diminishers in every educational setting who hold back learning because they hold back trust. And that is what teacher and administrators find so hard to do: push back. This is not about one teacher speaking to one parent. It is about a total cultural shift that will not happen overnight where teachers take back their expertise and parents back down.
We have to help parents identify behaviors that diminish and those that multiply. And we need look no further than the second chapter of Exodus to meet a remarkable multiplier. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, gave birth to a male child after Pharaoh’s decree; her two words were not “oy vey” but “ki tov”—it was good. This was not uttered as a statement but as part of the narration of the story, and it mimics the language of creation itself. Moses may have become the great redeemer he was because he was birthed into a world where someone believed profoundly in the gift of possibility. We, too, must inherit that legacy and help parents see beyond the negativity and find the good. If we cannot do it, we cannot expect it of them.
Unless we plan on having classrooms full of orphans, in the words of one frustrated principal who is voting with her feet, we have to become followers and trust that the education of our children is in good hands.
Strengthening Ethics to Strengthen Community
Few people would have the chutzpah to speak of ethical ambivalence when it comes to the Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a people Isaiah called “a light unto the nations.” Even Hebrew National told us that we answer to a Higher Authority. And yet, the recent spate of Jews involved in high-profile crimes ranging from agri-processing to money laundering and Ponzi scheming has challenged our integrity as a community. For the first time in the history of our people, a former prime minister and a former president of Israel have been indicted on criminal charges. This troubling state of affairs has made educators, among others, pause and ask if we are doing enough to teach ethics.
Ethics are the cement of a community. As Isaiah advises, they must be learned, and, as educators, we must be intentional in the way that we teach them.
The same Isaiah warned us to be unambiguous in setting educational expectations when it comes to the moral life: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (1:17).
Some will argue that this is not a community problem but a plague afflicting certain individuals with a lot of press coverage. In my book Confronting Scandal, I argue that these are not merely isolated instances of crime but represent a fundamental shift in the way that we think about self, community, money and responsibility.
We live within a larger societal context that values the individual above the community, as demonstrated powerfully in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and, in a Jewish context, Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen’s The Jew Within. Our culture places great emphasis on consumerism, personal empowerment and self-esteem, trends that when manifest in the extreme often push aside the needs and wants of others by making ourselves a primal focus.
In his book On Character, James Wilson writes compellingly that “Modernity…involves replacing the ethic of self-control with that of self-expression.” Self-control is critical in tempering personal impulses in the presence of others; self-expression can sometimes come at the expense of others. In the past decade several books have been written about incivility but fewer about the associated ethical costs of self-oriented cultures that we are only now coming to terms with in the classroom.
The Community as Insurance Policy
For educators, imparting Jewish life to the next generation is not only or even primarily about teaching Jewish law and ritual. Most of that will be picked up mimetically or through books, websites and conversations. What we often mean but rarely articulate is that we hope our students will value what it means to live in community and to contribute as active and valued members. Many of us take the presence of community for granted until we are in situations where we acutely feel its absence. We know that it is virtually impossible to define community; one philosopher calls it an “essentially contested” concept because anything you can say about the nature of community can be debated. Another scholar of the philosophy of education believes that community is a label we give entities to mask the divisions within them. Articulating what a community is and what our responsibilities and benefits are is elusive; this is problematic if we believe that you cannot be Jewish alone.
We cannot assume that children will value living in Jewish society and around Jewish friends and neighbors simply because many of us do today. In fact, current research on the Jewish community suggests the opposite—that we are less particularistic than ever and have weakening ties to Jewish peoplehood. In other words, our commitment to living and strengthening Jewish communal life is on the decline.
From an ethical point of view this is deeply concerning if you consider one of the primary reasons to live within community is as an insurance policy for goodness. In Psalms and Pirkei Avot we are repeatedly told not to separate ourselves from community, to be thoughtful in our choice of neighbors and to distance ourselves from bad influences. In constructing community, we are advised to choose the company we keep carefully because those around us exert a moral influence, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we seek it or not.
Ethics are the cement of a community. As Isaiah advises, they must be learned, and, as educators, we must be intentional in the way that we teach them. If it is true that nothing breaks up communities more than internal ethical fissures, then perhaps nothing strengthens community and inspires membership more than a posture of goodness.
As a result of the level of scandal in America, in Israel and elsewhere, Jews are in the unenviable position of having to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that to be Jewish means to live a life of goodness inherent in the Torah and inherited from those who came before us. In response to public breeches of morality, we must go out of our way to stress the centrality of ethics in Jewish life.
So What Should We Teach?
In the nineteenth century, the Mussar movement, an influential educational trend to promote spiritual self-improvement, was largely a historical response to the over-intellectualization of Judaism. It tried to refocus its adherents on the challenges of being a good person. As educators looking for some practical guidance in the fight against immorality, dishonesty and criminality, we can look back at the Mussar movement to see how it promoted personal goodness as a way to strengthen community. Speaking of fights, one of the most famous texts of the Mussar movement from Rabbi Eiyahu Dessler puts us all on the moral battlefield and can prove instructive as a “lesson plan” for educators who are struggling to teach goodness in a time of relativism.
Rabbi Dessler was born in 1892 and grew up in a well-known rabbinic family. He founded the Gateshead Yeshiva in the north of England and in 1947 moved to Bnei Brak to learn and teach in Israel. One of his disciples, Aryeh Carmell, used notes of his lectures to form the basis of Strive for Truth.
Jewish educators should see themselves on the frontlines of the moral battlefield, strengthening the moral muscle of our students (and ourselves, of course) in order to strengthen our communities.
Rabbi Dessler’s observations on behirah, moral choice, were among the most notable contributions to the world of Jewish self-improvement, pitting self-control against self-expression. Rabbi Dessler compared our moral choices to life on a battlefield. He wrote, “When two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront.” Any territory behind the lines of either army is assumed to be in possession of that army. If one army pushes the other back, then that territory, too, becomes the assumed possession of that particular army. He compares the point where the troops meet to choices that individuals make: “Everyone has free choice—at the point where truth meets falsehood. In other words, behirah takes place at the point where the truth as the person sees it confronts the illusion created in him by the act of falsehood.”
Most decisions we make, Rabbi Dessler argues, are not a struggle for us. For example, a person raised within a framework of strict Sabbath observance will usually not think twice about whether or not to travel in a car on Shabbat. There is no struggle for that individual; therefore, the behirah point is not activated. Our habitual behaviors take over. Rabbi Dessler believes that “any behavior a person adopts as a result of training or by copying others is not counted as his own.” Real choices, however, are not automatic.
The moral battlefield is one that we create and one that we largely control. We do not control what we are up against, only how we respond to it. When we battle the forces against us and make good choices, we can get to the point that Rabbi Dessler calls compulsion. We have integrated good decision making to the point where we feel utterly compelled to make the right ethical decision; it would not occur to us to make a poor one. In essence, we have changed the battlefield.
When it comes to education, we are trying to teach people to get beyond the freedom that every choice—both good and bad—is equal to a place of compulsion to do good instinctively, automatically and naturally. Imagine a recovering alcoholic in front of a drink. Everyday, he battles with his drinking problem. Every time he sees a beer or a glass of wine, the battle wages within him. He makes a decision: “I no longer want to be this person.” After extensive personal work with a support group and rehabilitation, he gives up drinking for years. Even in front of alcohol, this individual no longer faces the same battlefield because he or she has integrated more healthful habits and understands the painful consequences of his past behavior. He knows intellectually that he once had a drinking problem, but he has become such a different person that he no longer emotionally sees himself as someone fighting that temptation. Rabbi Dessler calls this level of spiritual achievement “higher unfreedom.”
Compulsion is an active force, a decision, even if it is a decision for good. At a certain point of commitment, individuals do good simply for the sake of goodness; there is no compulsion at all. Doing right is simply natural. “Compulsion only applies where there is resistance. One cannot speak of compulsion to do something one loves.”
As educators, we want to help people understand their own personal behirah points, where they stand on the battlefield and what the forces are that press upon them in their own moral decision-making. It may be helpful to visualize this with students by asking them to draw a battlefield and actually place toy soldiers on it. Label the soldiers on opposing sides with tags where students identify the battles they are personally fighting. What will help each student move the lines of battle and feel the force of their own control in ethically demanding situations?
The more that doing good becomes instinctive, the more able we are to move the lines on the battlefield so that we possess more moral territory. When we can habitually conquer desire and selfishness through active choice, compulsion turns into freedom. Freedom turns into love. At that point, the individual has achieved Rabbi Dessler’s goal: “The man of the spirit is the truly liberated man.”
Jewish educators should see themselves on the frontlines of the moral battlefield, strengthening the moral muscle of our students (and ourselves, of course) in order to strengthen our communities. Every time we make a decision, it has consequences for ourselves and others. Helping our students make better, more ethical decisions and with greater ease of moral certainty will turn them into better, more civil, more honest and more thoughtful human beings. Those are the kind of individuals who create inspiring and morally strong, sacred communities.
Sit Next to Me: An Invitation for Second-Stage Mentoring
There is a brief, tender exchange in the Talmud about second-stage mentoring between two great sages. In a debate about the minutiae of purity and impurity, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi offered a resolution of a dilemma before his colleagues. Engaging in rigorous debate can result in praise. It also summons the risk of rejection or intellectual humiliation. R. Zeira dismissed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, stating that his contribution to the argument was minimal. But Reish Lakish, the passage says, “honored him [R. Yehoshua ben Levi] and said to him: ‘Sit next to me’”(Hullin 122a). Rabbi Yehoshua was already a scholar of note, yet Reish Lakish’s gracious invitation for proximity was a gesture to mentor a younger colleague who still had room to grow.
We all have room to mature professionally but don’t always have opportunities for mentorship. R. Yehoshua ben Levi was lucky that Reish Lakish saw his native talents and tapped him for second-stage growth. For many of us, this kind of intense observation occurred only early on in our teaching careers.
Remember your first year of teaching? It was a real challenge. An administrator popped into your classroom regularly, gave you mini-assessments, invited you to experiment with new teaching techniques and gently helped you with classroom management. Knowing that someone wanted you to be a better educator created a sense of security and support while navigating your professional strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes outside organizations, like the Jewish New Teachers’ Project, are brought in to create an on-ramp by training mentors for first-stage teachers.
Now let’s jump to year five. Chances are that outside supervisory visits are sporadic at best. This is because mid-career teachers are often ignored. It’s rarely intentional. School resources may be thin. Administrators have to devote their attention to more inexperienced teachers, so mid-career teachers cannot necessarily rely on classroom visits to get better at their work. In Jewish day schools that do not have a culture of regular supervision, a visit from a principal at this stage in your career might even seem strange or unwelcome.
This is because by year five you’re likely a trusted member of the faculty. You know the school’s culture, tackle lesson plans with ease and have long figured out the rhythms and routines of the classroom, lunchroom and recess. You know the staff, the politics and the drama. You’re still challenged when a new curriculum is introduced or there is a departmental change of focus, but you can handle these changes routinely now that you are settled and competent. As a teacher, you are comfortable.
Yet getting too comfortable in the classroom can get in the way of the deepest learning and growth in position. Some teachers stagnate at this stage. If we adopted R. Zeira’s harshness, we might label such teachers mediocre. Most mid-career teachers have enough experience that they don’t have to focus on the rudimentary aspects of education and school culture, and can concentrate on new teaching techniques and content delivery. With the right kind of coaching and mentoring, they can take their performance up several notches. It’s precisely around the five- to seven-year mark when good teachers can become truly great teachers with the help of mentors—or not.
Many mid-career Jewish educators never benefit from outside mentoring. They may feel professionally isolated as they close the door to the classroom and come, over time, to deem the loneliness a normative aspect of teaching. Without second-stage mentoring, teachers may become less engaged in the work. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (in The Power of Full Engagement) cite research to demonstrate that the majority of employees in any organization begin disengaging from work after just six months on the job and even more after three years, just at the time employees initially learn the culture and later master it. If this is true, then by year five a teacher who is not growing professionally may actually be regressing.
Without second-stage mentoring, teachers risk becoming stale or lodging bad habits in place that may not be serious enough to warrant attention in a performance review but are evident to colleagues or students (or their parents). The mental models such mid-career teachers have developed may no longer be serving them well. As Francis M. Duffy writes (“I Think, Therefore I Am Resistant to Change”), “Left unexamined and unchallenged, mental models influence people to see what they have always seen, do what they have always done, be what they have always been, and therefore produce the same results.” This is when you want the veteran teacher equivalent of a Reish Lakish to say, “Sit next to me.”
Growth at this stage is more likely to come from a mentor than an actual supervisor. Laurent A. Daloz in his book Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners shares extensive research that “mentors are especially important at the beginning of people’s careers or at crucial turning points in their professional lives.” At these interstices, Jewish day school leaders need to invest in building mentoring pairs to grow educators and to retain them. Daloz reminds us that mentors do more than recommend teaching strategies; they offer support: “The mentor seems to manifest for proteges someone who has accomplished the goals to which they now aspire, offering encouragement and concrete help.” Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference describes such coaching as “really paying attention to people—really believing them, really caring about them, really involving them.” He believes the job of a mentor is largely “to facilitate, which literally means ‘to make easy’—not less demanding, less interesting or less intense, but less discouraging, less bound up with excessive controls and complications.”
So what can you do if you want second-stage mentoring but are not receiving it in an official capacity? Here are three possible paths forward:
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. So ask. Sometimes cultures of supervision come from the top down. But sometimes they come from a grassroots push from teachers within schools. Asking a principal to come into your classroom regularly and share observations is not an act of vulnerability but an act of responsibility and curiosity.
Seek an outside mentor. In his article “The Good Mentor,” James B. Rowley observes that “most teachers with 10 or more years of experience were typically not assigned a mentor, but instead found informal support from a caring colleague.” Don’t wait until year 10 when you might be courting burnout. Find outside guidance early. It can be essential to your success.
Identify a peer mentor within your school and observe each other regularly. You’ll both get better. Having an educational ally can help in processing challenging moments in the classroom and beyond.
New research produced by CASJE and Rosov Consulting identifies mentoring as one of the most prized contributions to teacher development: “Networks, cohort-based professional development, collaboration with colleagues, mentoring, and effective supervision were named as the experiences and opportunities that had been most valuable for participants’ professional growth” (“On the Journey: Concepts that Support a Study of the Professional Trajectories of Jewish Educators”). Mentoring opportunities are most nurturing and valuable mid-career when teachers know themselves and their classrooms well. It is precisely at this stage that mentoring and support will help re-energize educators and help them reach the next level of professionalism. Attention, attention must be paid.
Leadership Presence: The Look of Leadership
Many years ago, a friend of mine was promoted to a position of senior leadership within a large organization. When I congratulated her, she tilted her head to the side and said, “Thank you.” Her physical gesture communicated several things to me: humility, a tinge of being overwhelmed, and even a sense that she might feel undeserving of her new title. The “imposter syndrome”—the concept that some people are unable to internalize their accomplishments and persistently fear being exposed as a “fraud”—can hit hard at such moments. My friend’s body language was betraying her new position. Leaning sideways communicates a lack of confidence. It was time to lean in, modestly but proudly. I gently straightened her head and suggested she hold it high permanently. It was a lesson in leadership presence.
Of all the dispositions presented in Prizmah’s critical new report on day school leadership, none may be more elusive and hard to define than leadership presence, a relatively new buzzword in the universe of leadership literature. There’s no convenient formula to offer for mastery of personal dignity, which undergirds leadership presence and is, in so many ways, ineffable. And yet, even though presence is so much less important in the scale of the other dispositions identified, presence is without a doubt important in helping followers assume and respect competence, skills and educational background. Take one quick look at a leader in an ill-fitting suit, and it’s not hard to imagine the thoughts that cross our minds: Does this person take her job seriously? Does he value education? Is she skilled at what she does? Is he leading well? Why don’t we pay our educators more? Few are those who look totally beyond the trappings to see the richness within.
As Jews and human beings, we are told “dan le-khaf zekhut”—judge everyone with favor—and see beyond appearances. And yet, we also have a category of mar’it ayin in Jewish law, being judged by what others see, that encourages us to be at our best at all times because the visual has impact. Consider any optic of unprofessionalism, even if it seems superficial. Lest we think that these measures are unimportant, we find a striking statement in the Talmud (BT Shabbat 114a): “Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘A Torah scholar on whose clothes a stain is found is liable to receive the death penalty.’” Harsh as it may sound, this sage believed that people who represent leadership can cause others to devalue it if they are not clean in their bearing.
That the look of leadership matters appears as early in the Bible as Israel’s first king. King Saul is described as “an excellent young man; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2-3). While Saul turned out to be a flawed king who lacked some requisite leadership skills, he had something that made him instantly popular. He looked like a king. We get a similar reaction by followers to a later biblical story. When Mordechai finally dressed in royal garb after chapters in sackcloth and ashes, his ancient brothers and sisters were star-struck by his new leadership presence: “Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries” (Esther 8:15). It is as if Mordechai’s clothing alone brought palpable relief and enchantment to the entire capital city.
Dress, voice, posture and something as small as slowing down the speed of one’s conversation, pausing frequently and responding to a question with measure and deliberation, can communicate authority. The common cadence of an upward lilt at the end of a statement so that it sounds like a question can undermine the strength of presence. Throw in a few filler words such as “like” and “whatever,” and a person in a role of authority may instantly seem unpolished for the job.
The magic of presence might best be explained by a fictional character. In the novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a little girl asks an ousted count what one must do to become a princess. The count tells her that a princess must have manners and good posture. Unsure of what posture is, she inquires if posture is good manners. He answers in the affirmative: “A slouching posture tends to suggest a certain laziness of character, as well as a lack of interest in others. Whereas an upright posture can confirm a sense of self-possession, and a quality of engagement.” The count understands that our comportment speaks volumes about ourselves, our attitude towards others and our commitment to our work, especially for those of us who believe that there is something royal and majestic about education.
Those who write on leadership presence point to qualities that are hard to quantify and describe, even if we know them when we see them. Inspiring. Motivating. Energized. Credible. Focused. Confident. Compelling. These are the words Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar (in their book Leadership Presence) identified that people use repeatedly when describing leadership presence. They drill down on the feelings that leadership presence communicates. Leaders with presence are “compelling individuals who attract your attention almost effortlessly. They have something, a magnetism that pulls others to them. When they enter the room, the energy level rises. You perk up, stop what you’re doing, and focus on them. You expect something interesting to happen. It’s as though a spotlight shines on them.”
Think of someone who has this impact on you. Now get beyond the feeling and describe what that individual looks like. How tall does this individual stand, despite actual height? Does the body language used match the message? Is there a sense of gravitas present? What is this person wearing? Does this person use eye contact effectively?
Sustained eye contact is critical in creating leadership presence. It communicates focus, curiosity, transparency and honesty. Leaders who do not work on sustaining eye contact might find that people fidget in their presence, unsure that the leader is interested in what they have to say, making them feel that either who they are or what they have to say is not valued. In his highly practical guide to communication, Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond, Jay Sullivan recommends dismissing the advice to scan the room when speaking publicly. Looking at everyone means looking at no one. He advises, instead, to focus each sentence on one person at a time and move the eyes accordingly. Yet at the same time, too much sustained eye contact can also feel disarming and uncomfortable. Leaders achieve presence with their eyes when they identify the sweet spot of engagement in each interaction. It takes time to cultivate that skill.
Some might believe that these skills are far less important than the title on one’s business card. Yet leadership presence is not only about the position a person has but also about the way he or she leverages that position in a very personal way. A scholar of organizational psychology makes an important distinction between personal and positional leadership:
Leading…is not primarily about doing something, but rather about being something. The development of leadership is about becoming conscious of both the power within oneself and the power inherent within the position one holds. In a fundamental sense, the challenge of being a leader is about integrating personal power with one’s positional power. (David T. Kyle, The Four Powers of Leadership)
Leadership presence is like a signature; it’s a highly personal style that communicates an interweaving of dignity, warmth and seriousness of purpose. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) observes, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” Presence has impact. People are not born with presence. They develop it over time with the onset of greater confidence in position. Leaders can expedite the process, however, by identifying and studying those with strong leadership presence until developing a presence that is uniquely personal. Practice might not make perfect, but practice can make presence.