I have read leadership and management literature for more than a decade. Along the way, I have applied many of the lessons I learned from books, articles, seminars, mentors, coaches, and colleagues. This past week was a defining moment for me as a leader.
I am the new Head of School of Albert Einstein Academy Jewish Day School (AEA) in Wilmington, DE. While I started the job many weeks ago, last week included our first meeting of the Board of Trustees and the crucial teacher in-service days meant to launch the school year. By focusing on aligning hearts, I believe my leadership made a positive impact.
How did I do it in a way consistent with my roles as rabbi and educator? I reminded each group of the wisdom of chazal (the ancient Sages of blessed memory). The ancient wisdom I shared served as a frame for the issues of the day.
In my many years working in Jewish organizational life, I have sat in board meetings. Some meetings are run better than others; some boards are better than others. Without question, this past week’s meeting was the best I have seen. The president ably oriented the board members to their responsibilities, with a matching charge from a rabbinic representative; and the board members introduced themselves with a spirit of investment in the past, present, and future of the school. In the middle of all that, I gave a report in which I sought to indicate the many issues I faced and am facing as Head of School, issues I see as challenges, not problems. In the spirit of the Sage Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, whose beard turned white when he was appointed patriarch of the rabbinical academy at a young age, I taught that facing challenges can be about flourishing, not just fixing. Through choice words and tone, I aligned the board’s future responsibility with my own professionalism and their warm feelings of connection with my own openness.
Why am I focusing on alignment? Because it works. I saw it in action the day after that meeting when the faculty was hard at work. Alignment is enabling. Whether through the guidance of vision, through the trust of deep relationships, or the charge to follow one’s passions, being able to align oneself with an institution and/or its leaders enables one to act with purpose. As Thomas J. Sergiovanni writes in Strengthening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools, “The key to making things better is to enable teachers–to give them the discretion, the support, the preparation, and the guidance necessary to get the job done” (page 9). By aligning hearts, we not only enable teachers (and other stakeholders) “to get the job done,” we enable them to reach new heights.
The key experiences of our first faculty in-service day were designed to develop ownership of our mission and to pass that sense of ownership on to our students. [I thank my dean in the RAVSAK Head of School Professional Excellence Program, Dr. Elliot Spiegel, for his suggestion to speak with Dr. Renee Holtz (an alumna of AEA and now a key administrator at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester) about ways to look at our mission. I also owe tremendous thanks to the faculty for engaging seriously with the material that day.] What did we do? We walked around the room where key words or ideas from our philosophy statement were written on easel paper. Each of us had to write three ways to measure whether we do what we say we do. From those benchmarks, we turned back to the Babylonian Talmud to see how important it is to live by one’s philosophy. The following passage is from Tractate Avodah Zarah 19a:
אמר רבא: לעולם ילמוד אדם תורה במקום שלבו חפץ, שנאמר: כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו. ואמר רבא: בתחילה נקראת על שמו של הקב”ה ולבסוף נקראת על שמו, שנאמר: בתורת ה’ חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה
Raba said: “A person should always learn Instruction (Torah) from the part that his heart desires, as it is said, ‘but in the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH is his delight‘ (Psalm 1:2). Raba also said: “At the start [of the verse] it [the Instruction (Torah)] is read assigned to the Holy One Blessed be God and at the end [of the verse] it is read assigned to the person, as it is said, ‘in the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH is his delight and in the Instruction (Torah) of his [own] he should meditate day and night’ (Psalm 1:2).”
The discussion we had surrounded this reading by Raba of Psalm 1:2 hammered home the point that we all learn best and work best when we are doing something we love. Likewise, as the Talmud goes on to explain, sometimes we need to introduce material for it to become loved. Either way, the more we encourage our students find their passions, to discover new ones, and to pursue them, the more we further our students education as a whole. It is never about one piece of information; it is always about learning to learn. We flourish as learners when we align our hearts with our responsibilities. A few hours later, some teacher assignments in the school were reshuffled based emphatically on teachers’ passions. I believe we enabled teachers to flourish in ways that will allow our students to flourish. All by aligning hearts.
Many of the techniques I used over the past week are part of my training in leadership. The strongest impact, though, came from learning with others, alongside others. I intended to model being a learner. In doing so, I found my heart’s desire. This blog post is meant to keep in front of me that vision of aligning hearts, a vision of living education.
What vision aligns your learning or teaching with your heart, your passion?
As we start a new year, what will keep your heart aligned with your work?