I love my school and adore our community. However, during my years of training for the headship, I had been warned that being a head of school was lonely. I heard it from mentors, friends who were already in the position, and colleagues. However, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of the beginning of my headship journey. I moved to Northern Virginia to begin my role as head of school at Gesher Jewish Day School in July 2020, leaving behind a bustling community of incredible colleagues and dear friends in Los Angeles.
I was suddenly very alone. I am single and don’t have children of my own, and honestly, have been a fairly confident and fulfilled single person most of my adult life. However, I’ve also always lived in cities; I grew up in Seattle, spent my 20s living in New York City and most of my 30s in Los Angeles. I was used to running into people on the street, or seeing the neighbors from my apartment building heading to their cars in the morning or out for a walk.
That first year of being a head of school, I didn’t feel like I was living my own life. I had to make enormous decisions with little information and without the opportunity to build trust with my team first. I was used to having tremendous expertise in my role, but there was no handbook for how to run and open a school during a pandemic. This only added to my sense of isolation.
In a twist of fate, in April of 2020 just as I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to fly out to find somewhere to live, a local synagogue realized they didn’t have anyone lined up to live in their parsonage that year. And so, I ended up living in the house and I didn’t have to search any further. I felt incredibly grateful, but also somewhat isolated in a four-bedroom home in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. There were several weekends when I saw more deer than people.
Even the friendships that had long sustained me felt strained as it was difficult for some to relate to the issues I was now managing on a daily basis. It was challenging, if near impossible, to make new friends because of COVID and the responsibility I felt to reduce my risk of exposure for the sake of our school community. It wasn’t only that the power structure within my role meant I couldn’t be my full self at work (someone I know called it being 80% friends), but the gap between the life I led in California and the one in Virginia felt cavernous.
I have to admit that even as I type these words, it’s a little odd for me to write about the sustainability of the headship, as I’m only in my third year. I know we have incredible leaders in the field of Jewish education who have spent decades in their role, and I know I’ve learned more than I can describe from their words, work and example. However, the loneliness of the role is one of the reasons the job can be unsustainable, and my experience amplified those feelings considerably. I will be honest enough to share that there were a few moments I thought of giving it all up.
Once I was settled, the question became, what can I do to make this position more sustainable? I worked hard to get into the role, the work was fulfilling and important, and I believe in the field of Jewish education and in the incredible work we do at Gesher for and with our community. The answer for me ended up finding and cultivating a community of colleagues and confidants. I found those colleagues in other heads of school through both Prizmah and our local independent school association (VAIS). As many organizations pivoted to Zoom meetings, those weekly or monthly check-ins made me feel far less lonely. In those colleagues, I found others who were managing some of the same challenges I was, including developing policies, building trust among new colleagues and managing self-care during a pandemic.
In a different way, I found colleagues in my executive board. It took some time, but I made the decision to be truly vulnerable and extend trust beyond what is probably typical of a head of school. I needed support, a group of people to bounce ideas off, and even to challenge my perceptions. The trust I placed in their hands ended up being well-deserved and jump started a productive and positive relationship, one that has sustained me and my leadership.
However, what I found more difficult to develop was true confidants, people with whom I could share my doubts, my fears and with whom I could be 100% honest. And while I have an incredible coach and supportive therapist, I needed a peer. Someone who understood the weight and with whom I could share the burden.
While it took time, I found my first confidant in another head of school who had also recently started her position and lived nearby, but served a different population. We developed a deep bond and will talk early in the morning on our way into school or send a text late at night to check in about how our board meeting went. Being close enough to share a meal, but far enough away so that we aren’t competitors, helped to facilitate the relationship even more. I’ve since developed a few more confidant relationships, but their rarity speaks volumes about how precious they can be to any head of school.
Grappling with the notions of power and position, with the politics inherent in the role and with the weight or holding life-altering decisions, cannot be fully underestimated. It can and has made the role lonely. However, being vulnerable enough to develop a community of colleagues and confidants has made the lift far easier. I know I’m not alone in this work, even if I’m alone in the position within my particular school. I have the tools and relationships to sustain a long and healthy career as a head of school.