By Michael S. Berger and Leah N. Meir
For many Jews around the world, the past week has been intense. Rosh Hashana ushered in a period of self-evaluation and, hopefully, triggered an impulse to improve. In just a day or two, Yom Kippur, with its solemn intensity, will set the stage for the coming year – will we be better, will we avoid mistakes, will we not settle for the status quo and aim higher? ‘Tis the season for change, and most of us would prefer it be lasting.
This process of self-assessment and thinking about the future is no less true for institutions and organizations – will they achieve their goals in the coming year? Will they aim to be more efficient or effective? Will they, guided by their mission, better serve their constituents? Whether you’re a professional, a lay leader, or a highly invested funder of a Jewish institution, this time of year you’re also thinking about change.
Like individuals, institutions want their improvements to stick. Leaders and investors want to reduce the likelihood of backsliding and ensure that the changes are permanent. At The AVI CHAI Foundation, our focus for the last twenty-five years has been on strengthening and improving Jewish day schools and overnight camps, so that the Jewish education they provide is not only more effective and impactful, but enduring as well. In this season of planning lasting change, we would like to share a few lessons we’ve learned regarding how to promote and structure sustainable institutional change.
First, change is complex. Another similarity between people and organizations is that they are both complex: a problem is almost never the result of a single cause. Multiple factors may encourage certain negative behaviors or impede their correction. Trying to remedy or improve the situation will almost always be a complex process. Don’t be paralyzed by the complexity; take time to understand the forces at work, identify each, and appreciate how they interact.
Second, choose your levers carefully. Once you feel you have a good handle on the various factors producing the status quo, choose the best or most strategic lever for institutional improvement. Pick a change agent that has both the best chance of succeeding and of leading to next steps.
Thus, in 2003, to help day schools improve their Tanakh programs, AVI CHAI sponsored the Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks project at the Davidson School of Jewish Education (now called the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute). The initial target was, naturally, Tanakh teachers, who would be helped by “Tanakh educator consultants” (TECs), experts in the relevant pedagogies who would come to the schools a few times a year to work with teachers in implementing and adapting the newly-developed Standards and Benchmarks. However, an external evaluation after the program’s first three years showed that the Judaic Studies heads needed further knowledge in mentoring and overseeing their faculty members in order to successfully embed Standards-based teaching in their schools. It wasn’t enough for the school’s head of Judaics to be “on board” with the project; he/she needed to be the central player in the change effort. The Judaics head was “local,” knew the realities on the ground better than outsiders and could help the faculty collaborate on a more regular and consistent basis. Starting with the fourth year, the program shifted its focus to the Judaics heads and building their educational leadership skills, enabling them to support and train the Tanakh teachers in Standards-based teaching and learning. From that point on, schools enrolled in the program uniformly reported more consistent and lasting progress in achieving their goals.
Third, try to anticipate obstacles or potential headwinds. When structuring the change process, make sure to identify what other forces may be contributing to the status quo, or what might derail or obstruct change. Think how to avoid or work around those pitfalls, find ways to reduce their influence, or, if possible, recruit them into the change process. One example: since 2013, AVI CHAI’s summer leadership program at Harvard’s Principals Center requires participants to implement a change project related to the school’s Jewish mission the following year. Initially, we chose applicants whose projects aimed to make a major difference in their schools. But over the course of the following year, we came to see common features among those projects that succeeded, and those that stalled. For instance, if the participant’s project had either not been vetted by the other members of the school admin team, or a new head had arrived on campus who felt there were other, more urgent priorities to work on, it took a long time for the project to gain traction, if at all. On the other hand, projects in areas that were already determined to be priorities for the school, yet detailed plans had not been worked out, tended to make the most of the Harvard learning and progress impressively over the following year. After that year, we added several questions to the application that helped us learn whether the leadership at the applicant’s school was stable, and whether the project was already determined to be part of the school’s near-term strategic plan (in all cases, before accepting AVI CHAI sponsorship, day school leaders must get their heads of school or board chairs to sign a memorandum of understanding confirming the centrality of the proposed project). The result has led to a much higher percentage of school projects succeeding within the year-long framework of the program.
Lastly, build “scaffolds” for successful completion. In all settings, it is individuals who implement change, but as a rule, people in schools are very busy. Even well-intentioned people committed to change can be easily distracted or forced to attend to other, more urgent, assignments. Build into the program regular and consistent structures – weekly, biweekly or monthly check-ins, deadlines for updates, presentations to colleagues – anything that will create regular accountability and move participants along; Better Lesson, the program that helps teachers develop the skills for more personalized, differentiated instruction in their classrooms, has a virtual coach contact the teacher every two weeks to set goals and see how they’re progressing. This also helps with accountability.
All these lessons are, of course, interconnected, and so we applied the lessons we learned in one school improvement program to all others, where relevant: in the three programs mentioned above, over time we were able to identify when a school is “ripe” for that particular change or when it should wait; we came to know what criteria to look for in appropriate applicants; and all change programs have some structure built in to ensure accountability and steady improvement.
It would be wonderful if intensive, inspiring once-a-year experiences could produce lasting change. Outstanding Yom Kippurs would turn us around, and astonishing one-day workshops would move institutions forward by leaps and bounds. However, human beings, no matter how well-meaning and motivated, typically deal with what’s most urgent and then move on to the next pressing matter, leaving change uneven, incomplete, and prone to lapses and backsliding. The lessons above are some of the things we’ve learned how to help change stick around – something we all aim for.
One final thing: with change so complex, it’s also often slow, really slow. Quick solutions almost never work, and even backfire, precisely for the reasons we noted above. Make sure you give the change process enough time to take root, to make adjustments, and to assess. That means being patient – with colleagues, with institutions, and above all, with ourselves.
May we all be blessed with health, happiness, and enduring change in 5779.
Michael S. Berger and Leah N. Meir are Program Officers at AVI CHAI North America.