Leadership training programs typically use several different metrics to assess their success: the number of participants they recruit, the leadership positions their graduates assume, and the tenure of their leadership. Another interesting indicator could be the number of individuals who go through a program and then return years later to join in running it. The experience of being on both the “receiving and giving sides” of a training program is rare, and gives leaders an opportunity to develop unique perspectives and insights.
The Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), a professional development program of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), trains and supports a cadre of heads of school and upper-tier administrators to “think like a Jewish day school head.” The 15-month program consists of two summer sessions of three weeks each – one of which is currently underway – and several retreats during the intervening year facilitated by a team of skilled mentors currently heading Jewish day schools. During that time, leaders are exposed to all aspects of leading a day school, from mission, vision and philosophy, to budgets, instructional supervision, board relations, and conducting difficult conversations. The 16 participants learn from, and are mentored by, experienced school heads who currently lead Jewish day schools. The intensive, immersive program employs a constructivist approach, using creative case studies, simulations and collaborative work to help aspiring and new leaders acquire the skills they will need to succeed in what is now considered one of the most complex and challenging leadership positions in the North American Jewish community.
As DSLTI has matured – since 1998, it has graduated 144 fellows and is now training its 11th cohort – it has invited back several outstanding alumni to serve as mentors. We interviewed three current “alumni-mentors” – Cheryl Maayan (cohort 7), head of the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis, MO; Rabbi Ari Leubitz (cohort 7), head of Atlanta Jewish Academy in Atlanta, GA; and Rabbi Harry Pell (cohort 8), associate head of The Leffell School (formerly Schechter Westchester) in Westchester, NY – to share their unique dual perspective on what makes DSLTI such a special leadership training program for Jewish day schools.
First, they note that DSLTI emphasizes the critical role mission and vision play in running a Jewish school, and the leader’s responsibility to keep the big picture in mind, even as s/he deals with day-to-day decisions. “DSLTI helps you get out of the cycle of working toward deadlines and feeling like you are absorbed only in the day to day activities in the school and helps you think about your own leadership,” said Maayan. “We want to see the big picture.”
Before they can lead institutions and others, administrators must know themselves: their Jewish story, their personal values, and their strengths and challenges. “It’s not only about the vision,” continued Maayan, “but also about this profound intersection of who I am as a leader Jewishly, who I am as an educator and what guides me, and how that plays out in the school: how I can use it to guide the vision of the school and learn and grow as a professional.” The program devotes several sessions to articulating and sharing one’s Jewish journey, and includes regular study sessions as well as “spiritual check-ins,” a tradition begun by participants in cohort four.
Deep personal work is a hallmark of DSLTI, demanding openness and safety, trust and support – traits established early on in the cohort experience, and even across cohorts through an active alumni listserv. “DSLTI gives the encouragement, tools, network, and the shoulder to lean on sometimes, to be successful and make the school successful,” Rabbi Pell said. “Even people not in the same cohort are able to be open and vulnerable and share what has made them successful in their school, even if your school is 20 miles away and might be in competition. It’s standard that the first message you return in your inbox is from a DSLTI colleague posting on the listserv. We value what we provide to each other as a network to advance the cause of Jewish education.”
Maayan concurred: “When I was a fellow in DSLTI, my school was going through an unprecedented merger, and it was successful in large part because I was in that space of being at DSLTI. We were reading books about change management, and I had not only the books but also the colleagues who were there for me in a true sense. It’s having that network of people with whom you can be vulnerable and honest, who will be there for you no matter what, and who will get you back to that space of thinking in the big picture.”
The mentor-fellow relationship is another distinctive feature of DSLTI. Each participant develops deep connections with an individual mentor as well as with the entire cadre of mentors. These connections last for years beyond the program. This relationship, too, begins with the focus on the person. Rabbi Leubitz elaborated: “Mentorship starts off with understanding who the individual is and what’s their ultimate goal. Why are they here? What’s their personal ‘why’ for why they’re on this mission? What are their challenges, from a personal and institutional perspective?… It’s really hard to give someone advice and counsel and be a good ear if you don’t know them that well and trust is not established.”
When everyone shares honestly in a safe, empathic environment, the appreciation of others’ views and perspectives begins – a skill critical to leading successfully in today’s complex Jewish world. DSLTI invests the time to explore varied positions on each issue, even if it lengthens the program. “You can’t get [one] degree and be ready to be a head of school,” Rabbi Pell explained. “To get the toolbox to be a successful head of school, you need five or six degrees, such as an MBA and a Jewish Education degree. There are people in the current DSLTI cohort coming from backgrounds in the education side, from admissions, from development. DSLTI gives the skills and access to a network of people to allow them to think more broadly about how to lead the school.”
Maayan noted how the mentor-fellow relationship is most definitely a two-way street. “I talked to a lot of other mentors before I decided to become one, and they said being a mentor was the thing that kept them in the field. I have to completely agree. It nourishes me as a professional to be connecting with colleagues like we connect with them here. I feel like I’m the chief learner of the school. When I’m learning new things, I’m getting in the shoes of my students and role modeling for my teachers how we learn new things and move forward with our lives. I also feel like I can have an impact on the field, as I enter my twelfth year as head of school. We must have excellent people in the field who have what I’ve been able to benefit from.”
Rabbi Leubitz said that the gift he received as a fellow, and now as a mentor, has transformed every school he’s been in. “As people within the school start to use DSLTI’s language, or other graduates are in the school, it transforms how we work and how we problem-solve. Often there are challenges present in the culture of the school that we just don’t have the language to articulate. Within two or three words, I can say something to a colleague, and there’s loads of information that are already there, which is a wonderful thing.”
He added about the impact of DSLTI on his own school, “To be able to think strategically and holistically, it has to be in your brain, you can’t just go to a board or a book. DSLTI is pretty present in the way I think. That’s something I’ll forever be grateful for.”
For more information about DSLTI, visit: http://www.jtsa.edu/day-school-leadership-training-institute