By Rabbi Jim Rogozen
The last few weeks have been extremely demanding for everyone, including those of us who work in Jewish Education. Educators have had to go into high gear to create mechanisms for maintaining learning and a sense of community in schools. I am in awe of what you, my colleagues, have accomplished in the past two weeks. It is no surprise, then, that teachers and administrators are counting the minutes until “Pesach Break” begins!
Sadly, we know that schools may not re-open this spring; there may even be delayed openings in the fall. Even if our schools do open in August, there could be a mid-year return of Covid-19. This lack of certainty has convinced some of us that it is too soon to do any long-term planning. Many of us are, after all, still in the midst of a modified version of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We are rushing about, trying to figure out today or tomorrow, while people keep telling us that “the world as we know it will no longer exist.” We are all tired and worried. I get it. I certainly don’t want to add to your heavy load, but we all need to start planning. Because planning now, even when we are feeling so overwhelmed, can actually help us ease the tension.
There are plenty of resources on how to plan. My intention here is to share a few things that have helped me over the years. Perhaps they will help you begin to shift into planning mode, eventually finding a way that works for you.
I find that charts, decision-making trees, and creating scenarios, move me from “catastrophe” mode, to “here’s how we’ll get through this” mode. Whatever organizing method you use, here are some things to help you begin:
Start With Why:
Whether you’re a fan of Simon Sinek, or other leadership experts, if there were ever a time to put your school’s Mission/Vision/Values to good use, this is that time. No matter what the challenge, your efforts to “survive, then thrive” have to be informed by your school’s values and your reasons for opening your doors (or Zoom portal) each day. As you work through your options, putting your core values and educational beliefs at the center of your decisions will elevate and align your efforts. No matter how crazy, or painful, your situation, leaning on your school’s mission and values will strengthen your decision making process.
“If This/Then That (or These)” Formulas:
One way to launch the process is create a series of statements that express your current concerns, the things that keep you up at night, as well as potential “fixes”:
- If enrollment goes down, then…
- If tuition assistance requests go up, then…
- If parents wait until August to re-enroll, then…
Each of these “if” statements will generate a variety of responses, depending on the depth of the challenge, and how they impact your school. For instance, losing ten students seems to be better than losing fifteen, but if all ten come from the same class, rather than 1-2 per class, it could change your staffing pattern.
The next step is to combine various “if this, then that” statements into several scenarios. Try tweaking levels of enrollment numbers, tuition assistance needs or fundraising results and think through what things would look like, and how you would respond. These scenarios encourage more nuanced, contextual responses. The next step is to create budgets for each scenario that include specifics about numbers of students per class/grade, student grouping, staffing plans (administration and instruction), and other big-ticket expenses. As you work through the scenarios, it’s important to ensure that your key educational beliefs and program elements are preserved, even if they have to be accomplished in different ways. Finally, figure out how much each main budget item can stretch before you have to move to a different plan.
Look for Unforeseen or Unintended Consequences:
We have already seen one scenario play out: A drop in tuition payments has led to layoffs in schools. There wasn’t much time for schools to consider alternatives, as few schools have large cash reserves, or donors who could help schools make payroll. But as you move forward, it will be helpful to examine a wider range of options and consequences. For instance, how might a reduction in faculty influence student learning or parent satisfaction in your school? Will fewer teachers have the stamina to carry out your school’s program? How will layoffs impact the school’s ability to serve diverse learners, or students with increased emotional needs?
Now vs Later Thinking:
Now imagine those scenarios as played out in the short- and long-term. What if you find out over the summer that you have to delay opening school? What if (God willing) the financial situation of parents and donors in your school improves over the course of the new school year? What if things get worse? What if new funding comes along? This kind of planning will impact the ways your school chooses to save money, as well as where you might look for additional funding.
Visualize the Outcomes:
I also recommend that you take each of the scenarios you create, and sit with them for a while, thinking about what life will be like – for students, teachers, parents, and administrators. What will a day look like? What will you communicate to your parents and colleagues? How will you celebrate your successes and deal with things that didn’t work out so well? What will still be right and good, and give your school community hope every day?
We read in Pirkei Avot: Ayzeh hu chacham? HoRoeh et ha’nolad. Who is wise? The one who can see what has yet to be born. Our job, right now, is to look around corners, find our paths, and get ready to walk on them in the months to come. Being ready doesn’t mean that all will go smoothly; it doesn’t mean there won’t be worry or anxiety. But having thought through these painful scenarios now will help each of us be more confident when it comes time to putting a plan into motion.
To paraphrase Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: V’ha’ikar – lo lefached k’lal – the most important thing is to not be afraid – but to plan … and then plan some more!
Rabbi Jim Rogozen is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Early Childhood & Day School Education, the department at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education that serves the 54 Jewish Preschools and 38 Jewish Day Schools in Los Angeles.