Active Experience for Transformative Leadership Development

By Ray Levi

“The one who studies in order to practice will be enabled to study and to teach, to observe and to practice.” (Pirkei Avot 4:5)

At first glance, the large lobby at The Jewish Theological Seminary seems to be the setting for a morning reception being held by the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. Program directors and admissions personnel from JTS programs join representatives from various day school organizations—the Schechter Network, RAVSAK, Yeshiva University—and leaders of other Jewish educational organizations.

It is not, however, a simple reception. Rather, it is a class exercise. The participants are fellows in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of JTS. This exercise is designed to help these new and aspiring day school heads learn to “work the room.” In a carefully planned learning experience, the fellows had previously met with mentors to identify those with whom they should touch base given the needs of their schools. They were advised on how they might gracefully join a conversation in progress, and break away to make additional contacts.

Following the reception, small groups of fellows, mentors, and guests sit together to debrief. This final component offers a rare opportunity for the fellows to talk about how they navigated the reception and to learn the perspectives, comfort levels, and strategies employed by people who regularly find themselves in such settings.

This session represents the best of DSLTI’s experiential approach to preparing the next generation of day school leadership:

• Providing fellows with the background that allows them to work with and guide colleagues, knowing the key questions to ask.

• Offering real opportunities to test their skills. This reception, while a planned exercise, provided important introductions to key players in the world of Jewish education.

• Encouraging our participants to be reflective educators who look back to understand processes and grow from their experiences.

The reception, involving interaction with Jewish educational leaders, is one of several types of experiences that are central to the DSLTI curriculum. Others include:

• Constructivist sessions that, for example, ask fellows to explore the congruence between mission, vision, and practice by viewing websites and publications, an exercise that replicates the work of accreditation teams that will visit their schools

• Consultancies in which fellows seek guidance about current challenges in their schools through formal protocols with their peers

• Sharing personal and professional Jewish journeys and examining how the Jewish mission of their schools is evident and visible

• Leadership roles for fellows who facilitate beit midrash, Spiritual Check-Up, and other sessions that focus on enhancing the Jewish component of a day school’s life

• Mentoring by respected heads of school, which offers ongoing opportunities to discuss questions from the fellows’ home settings. Fellows also shadow their mentors at school, observing the practical application of concepts learned.

Recognizing that the role of head of school is often a lonely one, the commitment to DSLTI fellows extends beyond the formal program. Thanks to generous support from the AVI CHAI Foundation, a strong alumni network has been woven. Alumni seek support from one another through an email discussion list, a rich source of online conversation. At alumni retreats, the DSLTI group members plan programs around their professional needs. With more than 100 institute graduates, one of the most moving sights at every Jewish day school conference is the clusters of DSLTI leaders seeking one another’s guidance—offering real-world advice for real- world challenges. These moments commemorate the culture of studying together that DSLTI builds as we learn from—and with—one another the arts of teaching, observation, and practice. Experiencing, practicing, and learning the skills and knowledge that day school leaders need, and reflecting on these experiences individually and collectively, makes DSLTI transformative for the fellows and ultimately for the schools they lead.

Dr. Ray Levi is a mentor in The Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute. He is head of school emeritus of the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.

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