In 1997, The AVI CHAI Foundation began sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two week-long summer institutes at The Principals Center, a division of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Many of the 566 participants who have attended since then found the institute to be among the most transformative professional development experiences of their careers.
Beginning in 2013, the Foundation built upon the Harvard experience with a specific focus on helping leaders enhance their schools’ Jewish mission. This involved adding several components to the program, including evening sessions at Harvard, coaching, check-ins throughout the following year, and networking with one’s cohort. In advance of the application process that begins in early February, we will feature various alumni who will share their own stories and how this program helped them achieve their goals. Hopefully, this will give those considering applying a taste of what’s possible within the context of this incredibly catalytic program.
This week, we hear from Yehuda Jeiger, Associate Principal at Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy (formerly Bi-Cultural Day School) in Stamford, CT.
Associate Principal, Judaic Studies
Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy
To be honest, when I started out as a middle school Judaics teacher, I dismissed Robert Fulgham’s 1990 poem “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.” Clearly he missed all the wonderful and important things we teach 12-14 year olds, especially in Jewish day schools, when our middle schoolers are introduced to more sophisticated, engaging and adult ways of understanding their Judaism. We analyze Tanach, start Torah she-be’al peh, and learn the details of Jewish history. Kindergartners certainly don’t learn that!
But then my own children passed through kindergarten, and I became Associate Principal for Judaics of a pre K-8th day school. Through those two experiences, I learned much more about Early Childhood education, and I started to identify and appreciate the “magic” of that phase of school. To me, kindergarten teachers were masters of cross-curricular integrated learning, where, for instance, learning about Noah and the flood also meant learning about weather and rainbows, math and calendars. Unlike our departmentalized approach in middle school, kindergartners enjoyed learning in a way that combined so many different perspectives, so many diverse aspects of life in a single unit! I aspired to do something similar in our middle school, and figuring out how to do that was the project I took with me in 2017 to “Art and Craft of Leadership” (AOL), the Harvard summer program for educational leaders in their first 5 years.
My primary goal was to develop a clear roadmap for this work. Harvard’s incredible speakers on strategy and culture change gave me many concrete ideas, but they also helped me understand much more about myself as a leader. I came to understand about varied leadership styles, and how it’s okay to use different styles – collaborative, authoritarian, etc. – as the occasion demands (to this day, I keep a laminated page on my desk as a constant reminder of this expanded leadership toolkit). However, it was the evening sessions with my day school colleagues, led by Jonathan Cannon and Alanna Kotler of Educannon Consulting, which made all the difference. In my personal conversations with these leaders, I learned so much how to turn my dream into a reality: from designing initial small steps with one or two units, introducing it to faculty to secure their buy-in, and insuring early successes.
Let me share some examples. All change starts with oneself, so I piloted a Science and Torah unit myself as part of our 7th Grade Jewish Studies curriculum, which went very well. We built on that success by expanding first to History and Navi (Prophets) and then to other areas of Science and Torah. I invited other teachers to do the same, and worked with them to come up with ideas. Within the first year, we were able to have each Middle School teacher find at least one unit a year that involved cross curricular integration. The most ambitious topic we tackled was with our 8th grade, discussing the Torah’s and science’s views of the origins of the universe and of life on earth. We helped students identify and differentiate the goals of science and Torah, and they studied great Jewish thinkers, from Maimonides to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who worked to make these two realms consistent. We wanted to show them that science could support the Torah and enhance our understanding of God and the world in which we live. As one student remarked to me, “I used to think it was science or Torah. Now I see it can be both.” Or as another student put it, “I learned how lucky we are to get to learn both sides of the story.” If that’s not the goal of our integrated curriculum, I don’t know what is!
As I look back over what our school has achieved these last 19 months, I see that every step of the way, I was informed and supported by the Harvard program. Whether consulting lecture notes or readings, reaching out to my day school cohort, or checking in regularly with Jonathan and Alanna – all these elements contributed to the great success of my project, and allowed me to grow immeasurably as a leader. Even in little things, I learned a lot – such as greeting students every morning by name, which is the way Harvard leaders greeted us and which made us feel so good every morning before a hard day of learning and work. Above all, I made close colleagues and friends for life, as our day school group’s daily WhatsApp chat attests – we share ideas, professional and personal successes and frustrations, and always lend one another support. The Harvard program is a gift that literally keeps on giving!
In everything I do as an Associate Principal – from running meetings to planning curriculum and even greeting students – I look back on my Harvard experience as the model par excellence for how to be an effective educational leader. It was a real privilege to be in the program; a lot of who I am today in 2019 goes back to that week in Cambridge. There really is nothing like it.