A Leader Reads the Gyroscope

Gyroscopeby Jonathan Cannon

I once heard Michael Thompson, the renowned child psychologist and author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, give a talk. Thompson’s audience: a group of day school administrators, including me. The job of being a Head of School, he said, was much worse than that of a child psychologist – for three reasons. First, people paid a child psychologist to listen to their troubles, and the Head of School typically did such grueling work without any special compensation. Second: When a family visited a psychologist, they had just 50 minutes; when time was up, the session ended. No such parameters existed, alas, for the Head of School. Third, there was an implicit understanding that the family needed help and the psychologist was there to help them. In schools, Thompson said, these assumptions were reversed: Parents often believed that the Head needed help, and their job was to provide it.

I thought of Thompson as I read “Leading from the Gyroscope,” in which Dr. Joshua Margolis outlines the formidable challenges facing contemporary Heads of School. Combine Thompson and Margolis, and you’ll conclude that (a) running a day school is the most difficult job in the world; and (b) such a person faces the most impossible tasks in the Jewish community. But not so, in my case. How fortunate I am to have been the Head of School at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Rockville, Maryland, for the last 12 years. Let me speak, from my experience, about life as a Head of School.

Margolis compares navigating a Jewish day school to the behavior of a gyroscope, and the three directions in which it moves, as guiding principles for our work. While his three principles – organizational integrity, contextual complexity, and stakeholder pluralism – are listed in the essay as separate elements, working day school leaders must often navigate all three at once. This can result in our gyroscope being pulled in multiple directions simultaneously, and sometimes it means that our navigation systems are more likely to fall apart than to guide us safely to our destination. (Aren’t you glad that the Mars rover was not built by school leaders?)

For example, organizational integrity – “the underlying principles that distinguish one’s organization, what it stands for, what it aspires to do, and how it distinctively intends to realize those aspirations,” says Margolis – is frequently affected, and occasionally defined, by stakeholder pluralism, or “multiple constituencies with different expectations and time horizons.” Charles E. Smith, for instance, encourages its students to research and articulate multiple views on the Middle East conflict and some of these views vary from mainstream thinking. For some stakeholders, this is in conflict with the mission of loving Israel, and for others it reinforces the value of pluralism. Who is right and who is wrong? Even answering that question in any definitive way may create disequilibrium in the school. When some students at RAMAZ High School invited Rashid Khalidi to speak, the event was cancelled by Head of School Paul Shaviv, who told JTA that he was working with students to “navigate a delicate political situation, respecting their wish for open exchange of ideas, but also being mindful of multiple sensitivities within our varied school constituencies.” We can all agree that this scenario is a case study in the interplay of organizational integrity, contextual complexity, and stakeholder pluralism – and a pointed example of how truly difficult this job can be.

Margolis describes “contextual complexity” in terms of delivering what fits today’s purpose, while at the same time preparing for future demands. I believe that our organizational integrity requires us to honor the past as well. To be a Jewish day school is to take thousands of years of history, absorb its messages and lessons, and make them relevant to the students of today while preparing them for their lives tomorrow. Sometimes a day school community might see, say, interactive technology conflicting with the teaching of Jewish Studies. In reality, these can be complementary techniques that enhance relevance and interest. Isn’t a wiki, for example, a modern-day version of a page of Talmud?

The challenges outlined by Margolis are to the point – but can they be accomplished?

For instance, Margolis stresses the need to hire and retain the best employees and to provide professional development and leadership training. But we also should do more to empower students to be leaders and teachers. As I look back, I wish I had done more in this area. When entrusted with a task that they own – let’s say Color War, or perhaps an honor council – students rise to the occasion and outperform expectations. The key is to trust them. The Darlington School has much to teach us here.

Accountability is a critical factor for meeting some of these challenges. The people who work and volunteer in schools generate expectations, ideas, projections, and sometimes obstacles. Yet sometimes teachers and/or Board Members do not feel accountable for successful outcomes. For some teachers, demanding accountability for performance can be seen as unprofessional. For example, while a school might put a premium on teacher collaboration and/or teaching a designated curriculum, some faculty members might prefer to operate alone, not share good practice, and teach curriculum with which they are more familiar. A Head of School who creates expectations in these areas also might foster the perception that teachers cannot follow their own pedagogic inclinations.

However, we must also provide the resources for professional development to support the changes to which Margolis alludes. In order to introduce new educational technology into the classroom, we have to find time and resources to have our faculty become technological learners and leaders. The annual schedule for teachers is becoming more and more crowded with daily activities on top of the teaching load. Professional development funds are often the first to be cut from the budget. There were times at Charles E. Smith when we created an expectation for the teacher to use interactive technology, but did not provide sufficient time and equipment. This, of course, resulted in some of the educational goals not being accomplished. We took a step back, found time, and provided adequate resources. Success followed. This approach is not rocket science; yet schools are demanding ever more change and are less able to train educators to be effective change agents.

And so, we conclude with the question of resources. Did both Margolis and I leave this topic to the end because we think it’s the most important element; because we didn’t know how to deal with it; or because it appears insoluble? I suspect all three played their part. As a Head of School, I had the reputation for being a successful fundraiser – but it took a while for me to shift my point of view, from seeing fundraising as a necessary evil to something I enjoy. Much money was raised, yet the reality is that given our school’s rising costs, school size, and fluctuating market returns, even apparently vast sums of money have little impact. Maybe this is an area in which I differ from Margolis. It cannot be just the job of the Head to bring in these resources. The community at large, locally and nationally, has to say once and for all that Jewish day school education is too expensive but too important to fail. If Jewish education fails, then it doesn’t matter how effective we are with the adjustments to the gyroscope – it will fall down and, unlike the toy gyroscope I played with as a kid, we’ll be unable to just pick it up for another spin. To end, let me frame that positively. When the community at large, federations, donors, community members, foundations, and supporters recognize the significance and impact of Jewish day school education beyond the walls of the school, then we will see the future of the Jewish people in good hands.

Having recently completed his 20th year as a School Head and recognized as one of the preeminent educators in the field, Jonathan Cannon’s reputation has been built by the success of the schools that he led; most recently the internationally renowned Charles E, Smith Jewish Day School in Greater Washington, from which Jonathan retired in July 2013 after 12 years at the helm.

cross-posted on the PEJE blog