Saturday, March 25, 2023

As society evolves, institutions become more complex. Administering a Jewish day school has become a very complicated endeavor. At one point in the not-too-distant past, a principal hired teachers, maintained educational standards, and kept children, parents and Board members content. Today the job description has changed dramatically. Society in general, and the Jewish education consumer in particular, have become more demanding.

Our community is blessed with a plethora of school options. Herd mentality or geographic proximity no longer determines school choice. It’s become very competitive. Today’s successful Jewish day school/yeshiva principal is more of a CEO and less of an educator. The reality is that our schools all engage in fundraising, promotion, interactive websites, state-of-the-art technology, sports teams, extra-curricular activities, parent activities, guidance, testing, trips, assemblies, electives, record keeping, edifice enhancements, expansion, marketing, Facebook, YouTube, parent-teacher conferences, professional development, in-service programs, etc. There was a time when high school acceptance consisted of a letter and a financial packet for parents. Today’s eighth grader receives a high-powered glitzy personalized digital presentation package complete with graphics, music and hard-sell components, each individually crafted to sell the school and encourage enrollment. At the head of this ever-expanding pyramid is the principal.

In some schools, the Executive Director relieves the principal of some administrivia, especially in areas of finances and building management. However, much of the principal’s time is still spent in meetings and conferences, and on the phone or computer. Parents with issues, Board members with ideas or complaints, faculty with questions, and students with various needs occupy a principal’s day. Add to this time spent on certification, dealing with local school districts, correspondence, planning, and putting out the fires that constantly occur in every school.

It’s difficult to be an expert in everything. However, much like a symphony conductor must understand each instrument even though he/she may not actually play that instrument, a principal must know about each component that goes into running a successful school. A principal may not be able to teach quadratic equations, mitosis, Steinbeck, Navi, or Rav Kook, but he/she must be able to recognize if it is being taught well. The primary role of a principal should still be that of an educational leader. As important as all the other aspects of a school are, the most important task of a principal is to spend time in classrooms as often as possible, to establish curricular goals, and to foster maximum teacher effectiveness.

Because running a school has become so multi-faceted, an entire cohort of non-teaching personnel has been added to every school administration. [See Jewish Link, Oct. 23, 2014.] This is the CEO aspect of the principal. The Early Childhood Director, Assistant Principals for General Studies and Jewish Studies, Director of Special Services, Director of Guidance, Director of Educational Technology, Director of Development, Curriculum Coordinator, Admissions Director, etc. all report to the principal. It’s a challenge to be on top of everything all the time.

Veteran principals report that most of their training has been on the job. Graduate programs focus on education theory, business models and some practical issues. Most professors there have not been in a school for years or decades. The Jewish community today is very sophisticated and demands much of a principal. It’s not an easy job. The skill sets are not easily defined, nor is task-specific training generally available. Mentoring is the best solution. New principals should be required to spend time with successful veteran educators for hands-on learning. Just as public-school teachers must complete supervised student teaching for a license, so, too, must new principals complete some sort of apprenticeship. Unfortunately, we do not uniformly require our teachers in Limudei Kodesh or our principals to be licensed. (See Jewish Link, December 31, 2014.] In most cases, semicha and/or a master’s degree suffices.

Some schools make an even more egregious mistake. They take a talented teacher out of the classroom and make him/her an administrator. Granted that this represents a vertical career move for the teacher, but it robs the students of a gifted educator. Being a manager and a leader is not the same as being an effective teacher. (Although one may argue that a good principal is essentially always teaching his constituency.)

Just as a physician’s first duty is to do no harm, a principal’s primary directive is to always do what is in the child’s best interest. At times this is difficult, especially when a parent thinks otherwise or there are political considerations and ramifications. It is sometimes challenging to be a principal with principles. All too often we have observed principals with great longevity because they spent their career keeping those in power happy, thus conserving and protecting their job at the expense of their students.

New Jersey has the second-highest percentage of eligible students in Jewish day schools in the country. Northern New Jersey has the highest percentage in the country of parents who are themselves day school graduates and the highest percentage of families who are shomrei mitzvot. The density of Jewish life in our community has produced extraordinary Jewish schools and attracted fine educational leaders.

Just as symphony conductors focus on the collaboration of musicians to produce elegant sounds, so, too, should our principals be encouraged to generate the sweet music of children as they study Torah in the most optimal ways possible. After all, according to the Talmud, the survival of the entire world rests upon the sounds of schoolchildren learning Torah.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was a principal at two elementary schools and a high school, and for many years was the Chairman of The National Board of License For Teachers and Principals in Jewish Schools in North America.

By Wallace Greene

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