Feeding the Fire: Nourishing and Sustaining Heads of School

By Ray Levi, Ph.D.

We entrust our educational leaders to stoke the “Jewish flame” in the lives of our young children and their families. Yet, we often fail to focus on how we can support these leaders in keeping their own flames burning brightly. The RAVSAK “Heads of Jewish Community Day Schools: A Portrait of the Field” offers valuable data about leadership, confirmed by my own experiences preparing new and aspiring heads for leadership roles at the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of The Davidson School. From an expanding array of professional development and coaching opportunities to capitalizing on the self-identified strengths of our heads, the report provides a call to action for our community as we build a much needed leadership pipeline. With a demographic shift in our numbers, how can we inspire and sustain talented individuals to take on a lifetime of service?

Knowing the value of strong leadership, I draw on my own tenure as a head of school and my current work at DSLTI with a network of over 120 day school leaders and ask us to consider a significant and fundamental question: What will enhance the quality of life of our heads of school?

  • Inspired vision: Heads are not simply administrators. They are the keepers of the Jewish educational mission and vision of our schools. They must listen to the changing voices of the larger Jewish community and tell the stories that will help that diverse constituencies find homes with us. How are we nourishing our heads to deepen and articulate their personal visions of Jewish community – to utilize their distinctive Torah narratives and inspire others to explore their Jewish journeys in our schools?
  • Institutional support: Heads in the RAVSAK report ask for more support in the areas of finance, governance, and development. Often these areas of management are viewed as distinct from the educational components of leadership. Yet with their abilities to articulate vision, heads are uniquely able to link budgets to mission and values. How much money we do or do not devote to tuition assistance or professional development underscores our priorities. Are we supporting efforts to see the sacred in the daily operations?

A DSLTI alum recently wrote that “the most important piece of the program was having a colleague from another school … for reality checking … what were reasonable and unreasonable expectations of someone in my position. The mentoring element … has turned into a multiyear relationship with a coach who knows my personal/professional strengths, interests, values and growth areas.” Given that heads report the value of coaching, are we providing resources for them to develop strengths in areas they and their Head Support and Evaluation Committees have identified as critical to realizing strategic goals?

Support for school leadership must extend to our lay leaders who are the guardians and ambassadors of these sacred learning spaces. Similar to our emerging and veteran heads of school, board members can benefit from learning effective governance practices, engaging in Jewish learning and exploration, coaching, and networking with other lay leaders.

  • SchoolFamily Balance: An inquiry on the DSLTI listserv captures an issue that impacts longevity, the ability to attract younger heads, and I’d hypothesize, the gender balance of school leaders:

Dear colleagues,

I’m a brand-new HoS trying to figure out how (if) it is possible to:

  • give my family the quality time we need and deserve, AND
  • give my job and community the time and energy they pay me for, AND
  • take care of myself physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually

Do any of you have regularly scheduled time in your week for exercise? When? Where? How do you make it happen without taking crucial time away from those other priorities?

There was an outpouring of responses to this email from current heads and a number of people who have left the day school world. The problem was not externalized. One head wrote, “I realized that I need to live a wholehearted life in order to be the best HOS, husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. that I can be. These were things I needed to do to maintain my identity and feel great about the work that I was doing.”

But, this responsibility is a shared one. How are we helping our leaders to lead a wholehearted life? In reviewing evaluation goals that were set for heads, it is encouraging to see a number of schools that include a personal growth goal but in the scheduling of one more meeting, the cutting of a professional development line in a very tight budget, what are the values and priorities that are being expressedand that our teachers and students learn by example?

As a professional charged with identifying and preparing the next generation of Jewish day school leaders, I know that we must build new support systems and partnerships. I look forward to conversations generated by the RAVSAK report that will allow us to keep our passionate young educators engaged kindling a fire for the next generation of our students and their families.

Ray Levi, Ph.D. is the director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He served as head of school at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School and the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School.