HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Coaching Heads

by Ray Levi Issue: Nurturing Leadership
TOPICS : Leadership

Ray Levi and David Truslow were initially brought together through a PEJE School Improvement Journey Grant and have been conversing regularly for four years. This attempt to speak in writing reflects an effort to replicate the reflective dialogue that is at the heart of a coaching relationship.

Of course, sharing your perspective means sometimes telling me things that are not easy to hear. Still, it’s better to be hearing from you as someone who is invested in the success of the school and in my role in helping to guide the school in directions that will assure its growth.

Ray: As I’ve thought about this written dialogue, I found myself preparing in the same way that I’ve come to do when we speak on the phone or in person. I’ve developed a list of topics that I’d like to cover, areas in which I’d benefit from your perspective. Perspective seems to be a key benefit of our interactions. Over the four years that we’ve worked together, I’ve come to value the expertise that you bring, utilizing your background in organizational psychology and family therapy to bring fresh eyes to the day-to-day operations of the school. You’ve worked with other Jewish day schools but also know the independent school world. And while you listen to my read of issues, you also know—and speak with—the other players on our leadership team, so you’re informed by their perspectives as well as mine.

Dave: You have underscored the prime value of a coach which is perspective. Not that my perspective is better than yours, but the fact that it is different than yours is important. Reality for each of us is formed by our perspective or point of view. A coach can bring an opportunity for the head of school to look at situations from different points of view. This helps in developing strategies based on a wider understanding. To be effective in coaching a head of school, it is essential to have access to the administrative team and the board. The dynamics of those relationships with the head have a great impact on his or her work.

Ray: I must admit that even now, having a coach can feel like a bit of a luxury. A head’s job doesn’t usually include time to frame issues and share them with someone whose role is to listen and advise. I say this even as I know the importance of reflective practice. Working with you has encouraged me to be more reflective. Working with a coach was one of requirements of the PEJE Grant and was one of the reasons I was interested in the grant. Still, it took me awhile to set the time aside for the regular appointments. You waited patiently—learning about me and the school—and I began to generate those lists of topics to cover. You have reminded me that what initially seems urgent may not be and what rises to the top of the list changes with the benefit of time elapsed. Still, knowing that we’ll have the opportunity to talk can focus me on placing a particular event in a larger context and allowing me to begin the reflective process.

Dave: Beyond competence, leadership requires vision. Staying ahead of the game and not getting trapped in the day to day minutia. A pitfall for heads is becoming isolated by the great demands of the position. Isolation always brings distortion. By developing the discipline to have time to reflect and share, one can avoid this pitfall. Sharing my opinion, after careful listening and questioning, is more helpful than giving advice. Yes, patience is an important attribute for a coach.

A coach can bring an opportunity for the head of school to look at situations from different points of view. This helps in developing strategies based on a wider understanding.

Ray: Our focus has been on shaping the school’s professional leadership for a growing school. We’ve worked on developing and articulating organizational models while also looking at the patterns of interaction among players on the team. You’ve sat in on goal-setting meetings with lead administrators and me. In the process, you’ve asked me to consider how I define and do my job. Even when you’re not here, your counsel rings in my ears. I often replay the tape of such questions as “What would happen if you saw something that needed to be done and you walked by?” which is related to the query, “Are you pushing responsibility down?”

Dave: One of the things that we have often discussed is how you encourage initiative from your administrators. Pushing responsibility down without giving authority kills initiative. While we are all risk-aversive, being reminded that trust is only built by risking can help us to take a chance and build trust and enhance productivity.

Ray: Of course, sharing your perspective means sometimes telling me things that are not easy to hear. Even when you’ve said you’re going to be forceful, it’s seemed gentle. Still, it’s better to be hearing from you as someone who is invested in the success of the school and in my role in helping to guide the school in directions that will assure its growth. Ultimately, the coaching relationship also provides the support of adding tools to my to toolbox, pointing me to new resources as well as offering counsel. Wherever our conversations have taken us, your skill as a coach has always allowed me to see the cup as more than half full. Which brings us back to the value of perspective—placing a challenge in a larger context within the life of my particular school and the larger Jewish day school and independent school worlds.

Dave: When I’ve had a critical opinion, I of course worry, “How is he going to take this?” Then I remind myself that if I’m not honest with you there is no reason for you to trust me. Your reaction to the few difficult conversations we have had has always been non-defensive and thoughtful. As for gentle, I see it as being careful. What I mean by that is being full of care. The trust and friendship we have built together over the years is precious to me. Also, I must say to you that I have learned so much from you. Excellence in Jewish education matters to us both and is at the core of the work and relationship that we have built together. The essence of all the conversations we have had is that they have ultimately been for the children and families. ♦

Dr. Ray Levi is Head of School at Amos and Celia Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School. He can be reached at rlevi@HeilicherJDS.org.
David Truslow, a family therapist for the past 34 years, has been consulting with Jewish Days schools for 18 years, and is a Coach Mentor for PEJE. He can be reached at davidtruslow@comcast.net.

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Nurturing Leadership

Leadership is not a job title; it’s a character trait that day schools seek to cultivate in each student and extend to all stakeholders. Starting with Jewish perspectives on leadership, this issue investigates ways to support the leadership of the head of school, recommends leadership qualities to develop among students, and gives guidance for developing leadership in faculty and board members.