In our complex society, with its many varied and specialized occupations, we have come to expect ongoing professional development in a host of fields: medicine, law, accounting, and almost anyone who needs a license to practice. This makes good sense; any field where the stakes are high, and both subject matter and/or technique are constantly evolving, must demand that its practitioners stay as current as possible, ensuring that the public is best served. 19th century American educational reformers began to see teaching as another “profession,” leading first to the establishment of teacher seminaries (known as “Normal Schools”) to prepare teachers for classrooms, and then the licensing and certification of teachers, which included ongoing learning, first in the summers and then throughout the year, typically in the form of presentations and workshops. This is the model most of us know and expect of all our children’s educators, from classroom teachers to top-level administrators.
However, to a great degree this focus, while understandable, is misleading. It is tempting – and convenient – to view teachers as the individuals exclusively responsible for our children’s education. But we know that that schools are complex entities, and Jewish day schools, as private institutions, are also led by dedicated individuals who volunteer to serve on boards that govern the school. While professionals are indeed responsible for the critical day-to-day work of education, lay boards take the long view, setting the school’s mission, overseeing its implementation, and ensuring that the institution is properly resourced to realize that mission. Without doubt, these lay leaders are true partners with the professionals in making our day schools effective and sustainable.
Nevertheless, while their work is no less complex than the craft of teaching children, many assume that volunteers who are recruited to a day school board will naturally know what to do once they join it. To be sure, some lay leaders have some background or experience in fulfilling the duties of board membership, but such people are in short supply; most come to their board work eager to do what’s best for their school but unsure exactly how to do it. Moreover, most of these well-intentioned people have jobs, families, and other communal commitments, requiring their limited time to be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. Like teachers, lay leaders require some preparation and ongoing development if they are going to be successful partners with the instructional professionals.
For this reason, The AVI CHAI Foundation is investing in developing lay leaders in the following ways:
- “Board Fitness,” a program launched last August by Prizmah, begins with a thorough survey, called the “Board Self-Assessment,” that asks all board members to anonymously rate their board’s performance on a wide range of board activities. The results, laid out in a clear, color-coded report, enable a board chair to get a good snapshot of current members’ views and perceptions. With the guidance of a certified Prizmah coach, the board chair works out how to use the survey results to trigger important and healthy conversations by the board, and to work out a plan for board development that will improve board performance in specific areas. The program’s initial cohort of 50 day schools, expected to fill in 18 months, filled in less than four. A new cohort is expected to be announced soon by Prizmah.
- DSLTI, the Davidson School’s flagship leadership training program, now offers workshops and individual consulting for schools where program alumni are currently serving as heads. Board chairs, usually together with the head of school, attend one-day programs that review the basics of board governance and learn the elements that make up a healthy and productive lay-professional partnership.
Many philanthropists and community-minded leaders, who believe thriving Jewish day schools are a critical contribution to a vibrant Jewish future in America, are eager to help these institutions succeed. Intuitively, they offer to fund capital improvements, support scholarships for needy families, and invest in teacher and administrator development – all essential to raising the quality of the education Jewish children receive. However, our 25 years of experience in this field have underscored the equally important role lay leaders play in the success of any day school – a lesson other funders, such as The Legacy Heritage Fund, have also learned with its “OnBoard” program for all Jewish organizations. We are excited that other philanthropists are using their resources to address this need.
No school today would hire educators to teach and lead a school without also investing in their professional development. A school that invests equally in its board members will ensure that these two “partners in learning,” in shared harness, will lead their school to greater and greater success.