Leadership Transitions in the Day School Field and Beyond

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of Leadership.]

Interview: Jonathan Cannon and Mitch Malkus
Leadership Transitions in the Day School Field and Beyond

The topic of leadership transitions – when they should happen, how they should be carried out, and their implications – is a critical one throughout the Jewish communal world, both from the perspective of individuals determining their career paths and organizations and institutions setting the course of their futures. This interview features thoughts from two currently transitioning day school heads: Jonathan Cannon, the outgoing Head of School of Charles E. Smith, a RAVSAK (community) school in Rockville, MD, a position he has held for 12 years; and Rabbi Mitch Malkus, who is transitioning to the headship of Charles E. Smith from being Head of School of Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, a Solomon Schechter (Conservative) day school in Los Angeles. The following reflections from Jonathan and Mitch provide insights on the nature of leadership, its personal and professional impact, and its effects on institutions – issues which are intensified during this time of transition, but always present as day school heads exercise their critical roles in the school and community.

What needs to be done, as an individual and within an institution, to prepare for transitions?

JC: One of the trickiest but most important balances for an institution during a transition is to maintain some sense of a continuing direction while still ensuring that a talented person coming in can contribute original ideas and energy. For instance, Charles E. Smith’s orientation as a pluralistic, ideologically non-denominational day school was articulated throughout the interview process so that Mitch could come in with knowledge, at least in broad terms, of the school’s core vision. Simultaneously, the school should consider where the opportunities are for a new leader to really take ownership – without making any topics “off-limit.” Charles E. Smith has been in an ongoing process of curriculum review and modification – particularly in defining a more skills-based curriculum around 21st century learning – and a new set of eyes looking at the flow of the curriculum in its entirety might produce suggestions and ideas. While you could create models for how to maintain the balance between existing directions and new creativity, at the end of the day the key to success is all about relationships between the board, administration and the new head coming in. At Charles E. Smith, everyone is excited about the new possibilities and getting the combination right.

MM: This resonates for me on the other side of the process. All of the conversations I was having were made easier by the fact that the search committee had a model and overall strategic vision they were hiring toward, yet they also wanted to hear my ideas within that vision about how to move the school forward. Another set of balances I think are important to pay attention to have to do with the flux in roles. For instance, the board, and to some extent the search committee, often get deeper into an organization when there is a transition than they have been when a leader has been there for a number of years, but then they need to give over the reins when the new leader begins work. Also, Jonathan has been working to include me as he is going about his day-to-day activities, and I appreciate that. But I need to balance that with simultaneously doing the same thing at my current school. The only way to achieve these balances is through open communication. Transition has a lot of aspects: technical, emotional, and personal. In my situation, at the same time as this is a professional transition, I am moving my family cross-country. It’s important to be aware and try to attend to all these different layers.

What have you learned over your years at the school you are leaving regarding whether leadership is or should be collaborative or built upon the persona of the school head?

MM: The experience of going through a transition has reinforced my opinion that leadership needs to be collaborative. A long-standing head who is well-regarded and considered a leader in the community can produce a stasis. It’s the disequilibrium of a transition that breaks everything up and allows an institution and a community to think differently. Going through a transition brings about conversation on many levels about how the school sees itself, what about its vision and mission continue to resonate, and what altering is needed as it moves forward. It opens up a lot of new possibilities that can result in collaboration on a number of different levels. In well-supported transitions, professionals who care deeply about the institutions and want to move them forward share ideas, and volunteer leaders often step into these conversations and into positions of leadership they may not have in the past. It’s not always easy and a lot depends on personal relationships and trust.

JC: In a school where the leader has been there a long time, roles get shaken up when a transition is announced. Now that I’ve become the outgoing head of school and Mitch the incoming (both of which are different from being the head of school), the lines between the board members and the head of school are becoming somewhat blurred. This can be destabilizing for faculty, parents, and senior leadership. There’s no magic formula, but we’ve both tried hard to be conscious of it and recognize that it is really only resolvable once Mitch comes in. At the same time, I can’t believe how much time Mitch has given to his new school while still dedicating himself to his current school.

What have your experiences taught you about career trajectories in the day school field, how to prepare for them and when to judge it’s time to make a transition? What advice would you give about this?

MM: I was not specifically looking to make a transition. I’m at a fabulous school that I really love. While I don’t feel my work was done at Pressman Academy, this next step in my career offered an opportunity for growth that may not have been possible at my school at a certain point. I used to think about how many schools I have “in me” – in the sense that these jobs are all-encompassing and taxing physically, intellectually, and emotionally, particularly for leaders passionately committed to day school education. I also thought about, if I did move to a different school, what type would it be? Beyond Jewish day schools, how might the experiences and learning translate into other areas of Jewish education in the future? I don’t have a clear vision of my career trajectory. But just as we have strategic plans for our institutions, it is good for individuals to think broadly (though not necessarily concretely) about different places where they can grow throughout their careers.

JC: We’re both happy in the day school head environment, with good feeling and good will from the vast majority of our communities. It is actually somewhat atypical that we’re both transitioning with solid careers and longevity in the Jewish day school field. These are jobs where, in order to do them right, you need to put your heart and soul – and your family’s heart and soul – into it. So many things about the job will touch you or even distress you. There comes a point when you’re asking the question of when is the right time to move on. I’m not one of those people who wait to the point where I need to get out today or tomorrow. I wanted to give as much advance notice as I could so that the school has time to think of its next steps. Most people have the sense that the next 2-3 years is a window for their next opportunity, not because they are burnt out, but because a new opportunity is needed to refocus and reenergize, and allows the school to benefit from a new person with a new perspective.

Watch Mitch’s video and share your thoughts about leadership transitions in the Jewish world and how we can prepare for them, both individually and communally.

Jonathan Cannon is an accomplished educator and Jewish Day School Leader. Since 2001, he has been the Head of School of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD, and was formerly the Head of School of the Carmel Jewish Day School in Hong Kong. Jonathan has been a regular presenter at conferences. His topics have included “Managing change in School Culture” and “21st Century skills and instruction.” He was a mentor at the Day School Leadership Institute and is currently working with The AVI CHAI Foundation to coach a cohort of school leaders who will participate in the Summer Institutes of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As an educator, he received the” Most Outstanding Teacher in UK” Award from the Chief Rabbi.

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus has served as Head of School of the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am since 2001 and is the incoming Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), from where he was awarded the first Ed. D. from the Wm. Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, earned an M.A. in Judaic Studies at JTS and a B.A. at Columbia University. Rabbi Malkus has written extensively on curriculum, educational leadership, and instruction. He was a mentor in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI). He is a board member of the Schechter Day School Network, the American Friends of The Ariela Foundation, and is a Co-Chair of the Israel education panel of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE).