Ilisa believes that inspired, informed, and supported Jewish day school leaders are the key to healthy schools. As the Senior Vice President, Engagement at Prizmah, Ilisa works to help sustain and advance Jewish day school leadership through coaching and through serving as the director of YOU Lead, Prizmah’s signature leadership development program. Ilisa is a former head of school, an alumna of Cohort 4 of DSLTI (Day School Leadership Training Institute), and a sought after leadership coach with over 18 years of experience in Jewish education. She is a graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University and holds a master’s in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ilisa earned her certificate of nonprofit board consulting from BoardSource and consults regularly with schools on governance. She is certified in The Leadership Circle Profile™ and earned a certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University. Ilisa is also an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) and member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Ilisa is deeply committed to developing strong lay-head partnerships and creating conditions in schools where leaders can thrive.

The Weight of Unspoken Expectations


Thanks to numerous leadership initiatives, there are more opportunities than ever before for committed Jewish leaders to gain the credentials and connections necessary to fulfill their ambitions in education. There are clear pathways to leadership, as well as a growing “curriculum” of skills, mindsets, and knowledge that an aspiring leader needs to learn.

However, when a successful educator or administrator—or as we have seen more and more, someone who moves into day school leadership from the business world or other field—becomes a head of school, no amount of preparation can seem sufficient. The responsibilities of heads have become ever more complex. Heads of schools are expected to be visionaries, role models, mentors, community builders, conflict resolution navigators and more.

Added to the extensive head of school job description are many unspoken expectations. These expectations often reflect the nuanced responsibilities and leadership qualities required to effectively manage and inspire the school community. Failure to live up to these unarticulated expectations can negatively impact decision making, cause a strain on relationships with stakeholders, and result in burnout.

Many of the unspoken expectations placed upon heads of school are cultural in nature, or relate to prioritization of time and attention. For example, heads need to navigate unspoken expectations around their availability and accessibility outside of school hours, how they are meant to dress in school and on the weekends, which sporting and social events to attend for the community, and even when to arrive at synagogue. Inadvertent violation of unspoken norms can result in poor outcomes for heads of school. 

In addition, heads contend with unspoken expectations around their leadership. They may need to navigate implicit norms concerning who has the authority to make decisions, how consensus is achieved, and what the expected level of input from various stakeholders is. They are asked to decipher unspoken expectations about their leadership style and how to communicate effectively with colleagues, board members, and parents. With good reason, few of these matters are likely to be (or should be) addressed in the interview process or job description, yet they contribute significantly to the confidence a community has in its leader.

While lay leaders work hard to share information with heads that could be helpful for their success, they often overestimate how effective they are in understanding the demands facing their heads. A recent NAIS study revealed that only 52% of the heads of school agreed that board members understand the demands placed on a head, yet 77% of board members and 100% of board chairs claimed that they do understand, underscoring a disconnect between how the board perceives headship and the head’s own lived experience in a challenging role. Having intentional and explicit conversations can help close this gap, ensuring stronger lay-head partnerships and longer tenure for heads in their roles.

Prizmah’s work in the field, provides us with a front row seat to some of the challenges and opportunities that contribute to the weight of headship. Here, we share five things lay leaders and heads can do to strengthen the lay-head partnership, reduce the weight of unspoken expectations, and secure the return on the investment in the leadership of the school.

Set Norms for the Lay-Head Partnership 

Taking time to assess one’s strengths, identify areas in which one needs support, develop a strategy for communication, and clarify priorities is critical to a strong onboarding process for a head of school. Leading Edge’s guide People-Centered Leadership: A Toolkit for Incoming CEOs and the Board Chairs Supporting Them can serve as a catalyst for meaningful and critical conversations between heads and board chairs. Honest communication is essential for leaders who want to retain a team who trust in them and in their organization. Time invested in developing the partnership does not slow down working towards achieving the mission. Rather, a school’s success hinges on this close partnership.

Name the Public-Private Tension, Make a Plan 

Prizmah’s recent exploration of the cultures and conditions of headship revealed that most heads of school thought that serving simultaneously as both a community leader and member was one of the most challenging aspects of their job. Interviewees spoke about the “blurry line between your personal life and work life.” One head of school articulated, “I feel like a big piece of being a head of school is that everywhere you go, people are judging your school and judging you.”

Boards can support heads by openly discussing this private-public tension and making a plan that honors the head and encourages and respects boundaries. Heads can ensure their own success by clarifying expectations about their responsibilities outside of school instead of leaving these questions exclusively to their own judgment or imagination.

Communicate with Clarity 

Clarifying and continually communicating around the key strategic priorities can mitigate the weight of the multiple demands on heads’ time and attention. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, 95% of board chairs agreed or strongly agreed that their board set achievable goals for the head of school and that the board and head collaborated on their prioritization. However, only 77% of heads of school agreed. 

This nearly 20 percentage point gap belies misunderstanding or disagreement between many heads and their boards on what the head’s role entails, as well as what is the board’s role in helping the head succeed. If not addressed, this discord can result in the unexpected departure of the head, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Working in partnership to set goals and metrics for success, communicating regularly on progress, and identifying additional sources of support necessary to achieve goals are critical.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable 

Sharing feedback with people with whom you have both personal and professional connections can feel uncomfortable. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott shows that personal care for leaders must be paired with challenging them. Too often, boards can fall into a trap of offering platitudes and encouragement without direct and instructive feedback. In a recent NAIS study, only 66% of heads of school agreed that the board provides them with periodic feedback on progress toward meeting annual goals, while 94% of board chairs and 85% of board members believed that the board did so. And while nine in ten boards reported that they give their head of school adequate time to achieve goals, only three out of four heads agreed. 

Structures such as a head support and evaluation committee can go a long way toward ensuring boards fulfill their oversight responsibilities. However, the structure alone is not sufficient. Board chairs need to get comfortable having difficult conversations and delivering direct feedback. Heads can work on any barriers that get in the way of receiving feedback and communicating directly with the board about what they need. It is essential that heads and lay leaders get comfortable with being uncomfortable in service of achieving mutual goals and advancing the school’s strategic priorities.

Draw on Support Systems that Work 

There are key structures within our school systems designed to empower heads of school and the boards who support them. An investment in the systems can reduce the weight of the role and the unspoken expectations inherent in the process. These include coaching for heads of schools and board chairs, flexibility around meeting times and virtual options for meetings, a head support and evaluation committee, and regular weekly board chair-head of school meetings. In addition, developing and harnessing the power of governance committees, utilizing board self-assessments, and conducting regular and ongoing board training will enable boards to be aware of their strengths and opportunities and position them to be strong partners to the head of school. 

All stakeholders need to recognize that when their head is successful, the school and each of its community members are as well. Developing intentional, ongoing modes of communication to address some of these unspoken expectations with respect and transparency can go a long way to lengthening the tenure of heads of school and, ultimately, securing the school’s ability to deliver on its precious mission of preparing the Jewish future.