When Things Feel Out of Control, Grab the Wheel and Drive

Volodymyr Tverdokhlib © 123RF.com

By David Bryfman

Over the last few months, we at The Jewish Education Project have tried to gain control of as much as we possibly can right now. We want to proactively create parts of our new normal, rather than feeling like a new normal is thrust upon us solely by external forces outside of our control. We’ve taken time as a team to explore what we’ve learned over these months, what systems have worked, what’s still challenging – and to think about what we want the future of our work to look like. Of course, like many organizations, we’ve embarked on this process amid challenging, even painful circumstances. Budgets are smaller, staff were let go, and programs were scaled down or cut. Yet we’ve done our best to look forward beyond these immediate changes by grounding our discussions and attempts to grain control into three main areas:

  • The way we work together internally
  • The ways in which we work with our constituents
  • The ways in which our educators are working in the field

We want to continue to evolve in these areas over the next six months, and beyond – and we imagine you might also focus on similar aspects in your work. Whichever areas are most applicable to your work, the lesson is still the same: Even though you may feel that certain things are beyond your control, focus on that which you can reclaim in order to take control. At a time when we all need to support each other, here is what we’ve learned from our “take control” process – and actions we plan to take moving forward – that we think could help you and inform your own decisions. 

The way we work together internally

Working from a distance will most likely continue for the foreseeable future; we accept that and now are working to maximize 1) our own productivity and 2) that of our entire agency. Each person has his or her own learning curve when it comes to use of technology. Ultimately, we all have a stake in helping each member of the team take control of their learning and move along that curve. We all benefit when we can all do our jobs efficiently and with ease.

We also recognize that human connection in various forms is important. We generally create better resources and offerings that speak to more people when we increase the mixing and matching between staff teams. So we are intentionally maintaining the all-hands-on-deck mentality from the last few months, instilling a new normal where old silos remain just that – old. We can continue to work on projects that we never before would have worked on together. Working groups aligned by people’s schedules is one way to structure teams and to feel in control of one’s own day. This is a different approach than grouping people together just because they’ve always worked with one another. 

These internal changes are buttressed by a supportive Board and lay leadership committed to our objective to plan our new normal. They recognize that the changes we are experiencing can be best managed by getting out in front of them, by being unafraid to try a new approach, and by having the space to plan our own future. 

The ways in which we work with our constituents

Our constituents are Jewish educators in all kinds of settings working with different age cohorts. These educators have been nimble and creative to meet this moment. We’ve tried to do the same. Over the last few months we’ve begun to more deeply understand what it means to be proactive and to anticipate constituents’ challenges, as opposed to just being highly responsive. We need to continue to model what we want the new normal to look like. Specifically, our deliverables should look the way we want education to look in the field: experiential, learner-driven, life-relevant, and meaningful. 

The pandemic and subsequent changes in our lives are disruptors that create an opportunity for educators to make substantial changes with the appropriate support to innovate. We see three key ways to take control of this opportunity and to offer this support:

  • Digital is here to stay: A primary area of our work will focus on how to make the best use of digital engagement. We need to highlight certain content and elevate that which represents best practices. We need to signal to content creators that we have standards of excellence that we held ourselves to and that we hold them to.
  • We are co-creators of content now more than ever: More than just being a platform to house resources, we are proactive thought partners who push content creators further, ensuring the end product aligns with our goals for education that is experiential, learner-driven, life-relevant, and meaningful.
  • Access: Educational leaders sometimes struggle to place the right teachers into the educational environment that position them and their learners for success. But we can enable learners and teachers to enjoy meaningful learning in the best possible situations, fueled by excellent resources. We are their “on demand” button, always available with supportive materials to enhance the lesson.

Our constituents, like us, are used to some systems and ways of working that have been in place for nearly a hundred years. But some of them need to be rebuilt. This can be difficult, but there is so much opportunity in leading a rebuilding. As just one example, many digital convenings were put together on the fly, with exceptional results that should inform the entire field’s approach. We can unpack what’s been done and make these convenings even better through guided consultation, thought provocation, and a bit of a combination. 

The ways in which our educators are working in the field

We measure ourselves based on the impact we have on Jewish educators. The last few months have in some ways given us more space than ever before to think about the footprint and influence we have nationally. What is our long-term strategic vision with this in mind? Who exactly do we consider to be in our field? How can we fill in the gaps in terms of expertise, program support, and more that we know we have? 

On a personnel (and personal) level, at the end of the day, our organization, like yours, is made up of people. We must always remember that taking care of our people and providing them what they need is inherently part of our mission. Offering people ways to grow and develop is always a part of the work in the field of education. What do they need now and in the future to effectively grow and develop in their work? 

We thought about these questions and kept on going back to the concept of “partners.” We are intent on seeking out more organizational partners to better leverage what we do well, what they do well, and to improve our organizational shortcomings. As we recently wrote, we want to continue to move from coordination with others to genuine collaborations with others. In this new normal, geographic limitations become nonexistent. Partners, programs, and resources are all more accessible. We can capitalize on this new level of accessibility. We can take control!

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As we explored the three areas above, we came to the realization that it’s not enough to focus just on internal staff or just on external constituents. We all must find a way to address both simultaneously so that the same values that influence our external dynamics are reflected in what we do internally. In this context, we know we’re not the only organization facing challenges, having some successes, trying to plan, collaborating with others, and in general trying to work effectively at this time.  As we look to build our future, we’re excited about the opportunity in front of us – and we are determined to shape it in ways that benefit us all.

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.