Measured, Not Mindless Innovation

By Alanna Kotler

There is a frenetic pace that has taken over Jewish education, and education in general. Maybe this is a result of the flood of offerings on social media promoting how to be a #betterschool or the latest technology you must have to be #cuttingedge. Perhaps it comes from a feeling that in order to retain and attract students schools can’t stop moving, training, improving, innovating. This is overwhelming educators and is having a ripple effect into all aspects of Jewish Day Schools. We are losing talented teachers and school leaders who want to keep up, but the speed at which things move may be too fast for even the most dedicated educators.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that training or improving or innovating are bad. In fact, they are a must if we want our children to excel and be engaged citizens who see the world through a Jewish lens. Our students need exposure to a variety of disciplines and skills, and they need to master them. However, what I have felt, seen and heard is a growing grumbling from teachers and leaders alike who are grabbing at the next best thing that is just out of reach. Whether it’s a 3-D printer, a new STEM lab, the latest coding software, SEL curriculum, personalized learning – schools can’t stop figuring out what they are missing. But, perhaps, they are missing the point of day school education in the first place.

Thankfully, there will always be the desire to improve because Jewish Day schools need to stay relevant and provide a high quality educational experience for their students. But day schools are mission-driven institutions, and I am concerned many are losing sight of those missions to be the #nextbestthing. Are we pushing teachers to the brink? Is it reasonable to ask each of them to integrate, innovate and create in addition to helping students grow – socially and emotionally, provide opportunities for Tikkun Olam, read, write, compute, analyze, argue a point, draw connections, be a team player, be independent, be kind, oh and don’t forget … be mindful while having a growth mindset. It’s leading to burnout, a revolving door of teachers, frustrated parents and weakened schools.

This stress and pace is compounded for school leaders. Not only do they need to fundraise and grow enrollment, but they also need to open up a Makerspace like the school across town while parents knock on the door asking where THEIR KIDS’ 3-D printer is. Even when schools can’t afford it, don’t have the training or perhaps feel that it won’t necessarily enhance their current academic program, they build a Makerspace because they should. And so the pace quickens!

The time it takes to implement a new idea, tool or curriculum should correlate to the amount of time a school has taken to reflect, discuss and research the new innovation in addition to involving teachers and students in the discussion. How can schools keep their identity, their mission, if they don’t take the time to consider all the pros and cons of an expensive, time-intensive idea? What price do teachers pay who are on the front lines and must deliver every. new. idea?

One possible approach could be for school teams to think about the why behind certain educational decisions and then make an education plan (not a strategic plan) that connects to the school mission and articulates the why. What if schools resisted the platitudes (i.e. students that are college-ready) and commit to what they REALLY want for their students. (While remembering that innovation happens in teaching and pedagogy, not only in the tools schools obtain). They should decide the skills, the content, the social curriculum AND the related innovations that fit into that vision so change can be handled realistically by teachers and the budget. Then, the plan should be presented with the why behind the decisions to the school community – to parents, to the board, to teachers and to students. The ability to move and change still needs to be nimble, however, the pace may feel more manageable, the reasons would be clear, and the innovation would be rooted in a vision and plan that took all factors into account.

I realize there are many challenges day schools currently face – affordability, demands from the community, leadership transitions and more. The stakes have never been higher for Jewish Day schools, and it has never been more necessary to figure out who we are, what’s important and what is at the core of our schools. We can’t stop moving forward, but we need to understand why, stand firm in those beliefs, change and innovate thoughtfully so that our teachers, leaders, students and parents move (and stay) with us.

Alanna Kotler is a Lead Consultant with Educannon Consulting. She works with Jewish Day schools and leaders across the country focusing on curriculum auditing, development and implementation as well as leadership coaching.