Our Equation for Successful Day School Education
[This is the eighth article in our series on day school leadership from the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. In this series, alumni of our leadership institutes share their visions of effective day school leadership, reflecting on their aspirations for the field and describing paths toward those goals.]
By Amanda Pogany and Sara Malasky
As day school leaders, our collective mission is to give every child in our schools the best possible Jewish education. We carefully and thoughtfully prepare our classroom environments to give children access to age-appropriate materials that extend their learning and grow their minds. We plan for their academic development and for their growth as people. We notice their interactions with peers and with adults, and how well they can communicate their needs and express their feelings. We guide them in being attentive listeners and good friends, understanding their own learning styles and encouraging them to advocate for themselves. Our approach with our students is gentle but firm, caring and supportive, and most importantly, holistic.
Yet at Luria Academy of Brooklyn, we believe that in order to fulfill this commitment to our students, we must begin by investing in and nurturing our faculty. We know that our most valuable asset is our teachers. They determine the success of a lesson, the well-being of the students, and the mood of the classroom. If that is the case, we must approach our teachers’ growth as if they are our students. It is our responsibility to support and challenge them both as professionals and as people, and we engage in our faculty investment through the following strategies:
Create a Working Environment That Enables Teachers to Collaborate and Thrive
At Luria, designing a collaborative environment where teachers are supported by supervisors and colleagues requires thoughtful planning on all fronts, from building layout to scheduling, from class structure to school culture. Classrooms with large windows, open layouts, and team teaching provide inherent and real-time opportunities for feedback conversations with colleagues and supervisors and avoid issues associated with teacher isolation such as teacher attrition and burnout. Problems that arise don’t fester, and finding an entry point for discussions is natural, supports authentic growth, and avoids the contrived nature of formal, infrequent observations. In addition, teachers have the opportunity to participate in faculty rounds, a community of teachers in our school who observe each other’s lessons, give constructive feedback, collaborate to solve problems, and share successful practices. In this way, teachers are constantly learning from each other, cultivating the growth and learning mindset that pushes us forward. This culture of learning from each other is pervasive throughout the school and students are eager to share their learning with each other, with teachers, and even with visitors to our school.
Nurture a Culture in Which Teachers Are Encouraged and Enabled to Grow
Just as we are constantly striving to grow and challenge our students, we must do the same for our staff. Excellent teachers often transition out of the classroom into administration when they are ready for a new challenge, and at Luria, everyone is empowered and given the opportunity to lead. Our model of distributive leadership creates a pathway for teachers to stretch themselves, develop new skills in an area of strength, all while keeping a foot in the classroom. We have content area coaches, mentoring opportunities, team leader positions, and curriculum coordinators. Every leadership opportunity comes with professional development to support it. And because our classroom teachers are also our school’s leaders, the education happening within the walls of the classroom is immediately impacted and ultimately transformed.
Encourage Celebration for Risk–Taking and “Failure”
In an excellent classroom, students are given the opportunity to fail, to be independent, to try things out, to screw things up, and to make a mess of things. The same must be true for our staff. Risk-taking is not only welcome, it is encouraged. It takes buy-in from parents, students, and administrators. If we are doing our job well, we are growing our teachers into reflective practitioners who can learn from every failure and every mess and make their practice even better. We nurture them and hold the space for them to be brave and bold, to screw it all up and then to try again, smarter and better than the first time.
Committing ourselves to consistently growing our faculty is not a linear process. No marketable curriculum or single school leader can make it happen. It begins with a firmly rooted vision that recognizes teachers as the primary agents for our students’ learning and well-being, and requires openness, responsiveness, experimentation, and flexibility to implement. It requires engagement from every staff member, trust from parents, and support from administration. It forces us to not be satisfied with mediocrity. If we are truly responsive to our students’ needs, we are willing to prioritize and invest in our teachers’ growth over so many of the demands of running a large institution. The rewards of a happy staff are happy and productive children, satisfied parents, high teacher retention, and thus a happy school. Well worth the effort.
Amanda Pogany is the head of school at Luria Academy of Brooklyn; Sara Malasky is the director of teaching and learning at the lower school at Luria Academy of Brooklyn.