The Leadership Recruitment Challenge: Expanding the Pipeline

We are removing our superstars from the most important role in our schools—the actual educators of our children.

In the Jewish day school world we often hear complaints about the lack of strong heads of school and few candidates capable of visionary leadership of our most precious educational institutions. Even more distressing, the average tenure of a head of school in the United States is shockingly short—which further strains the successful and stable navigation of our day schools. How can we change this reality?

This question is by no means a new one and has been the focus of discussion for many years. A number of charitable foundations and donors have invested heavily in well run, professionally executed programs that develop leadership skills among present and aspiring day school leaders. While many of these programs have impacted positively on the landscape of educational leadership, we continue to ignore a basic and systemic flaw in our process of leadership development. Questioning some of our basic assumptions may help alleviate our leadership deficiency.

Under the present system, our best teachers “rise” to upper level administrative positions through the day school’s organizational structure. Peter Principle aside, this accepted pathway for advancement is inherently destructive to the quality institutions we are trying to build. We are removing our superstars from the most important role in our schools—the actual educators of our children. In addition, the implicit assumption of this promotion pathway is that teachers are uniquely qualified to manage the organization in which they work, and are therefore best suited to take on administrative leadership roles in the Jewish day school world.

I would challenge this assumption.

While teachers generally do possess a solid understanding of the world of education, this is not enough. The skill set that we seek in our teachers is fundamentally different than that required for heads of school. Teachers need to be skilled in content areas such as classroom management, content knowledge, and pedagogical expertise. The skill set for administrators is quite different. Administrators are responsible for matters such as managing and leading employees, working with a board of trustees on long term strategic planning, developing and overseeing multimillion dollar budgets, fundraising, oversight of operations, as well as oversight of development, business and admissions offices.

Consider a typical day of a teacher and then contrast it with a typical day of a head of school. The roles differ in radical ways. Making a tough call concerning an adult subordinate will likely test the leader much differently than classroom challenges. Asking teachers to use their skill set to become a head of school is not that different from asking engineers to become the CFO of the large company in which they works. While select teachers may well possess the right leadership and administrative skills to become a strong head of school, it is often not an obvious and logical next career step.


Master teachers can serve as mentors and guides for new teachers, play a role in working with parents on parenting skills, or develop curriculum or other teaching related activities.

If the issue were merely one of development of a desired skill set, the challenge would not be difficult to overcome. Programs could be created, both within schools and on a national level, that address the deficiencies in the skill set of teachers and train them in the leadership fundamentals required to be a head of school.

However, the issue is far more profound and goes to the core of the type of person we seek to lead our schools. The personality type of a teacher tends to be very different than that of a CEO. If you were about to hire a new teacher and a new administrator and as part of your job interview you administered a personality test to each of the applicants, you would be looking for very different results for each of the new hires. The personality type that can become an extraordinary teacher will often not make for a good administrator.

What needs to change?

If we are to be serious about changing the model, we will need to make a number of cultural and programmatic shifts.

First, we need to reevaluate our priorities. Our star teachers should be encouraged to remain in the positions in which they excel. We need to support a culture where star teachers are valued and ranked on the top of the Jewish day school hierarchy. This means that we need to create tracks for continuous job and skill growth opportunities. Creation of titles such as master teacher, mentor teacher, or other titles that carry certain pedagogical responsibilities with them may be a good place to start. In such roles, these teachers can serve as mentors and guides for new teachers, play a role in working with parents on parenting skills, or develop curriculum or other teaching related activities.

Nonetheless, teachers’ primary focus is in the classroom, continuing to work their magic with their students. Of course, we will need to rethink our remuneration priorities under this model. Star teachers will need to be remunerated in similar fashion to our administrators. This may mean giving these star teachers roles that they can play over summers, or it may simply mean making their salary equivalent to administrators in proportion to the amount of time they work per year if they prefer to have two months off in the summer—a perk that teachers receive and administrators do not. A number of years ago, Dr. Bruce Powell shared with me that he follows this practice and is willing to pay teachers more than administrators if they are expert teachers.

We also need to consider new pipelines for developing heads of school. As I look back at my own experience, my best training for the job of head of school was not from the teaching that I did prior to my present role. Rather, it was from my experience as a shul rabbi, involved daily in community building, working with volunteers, navigating politics and creating a vision for the institution for which I was a spiritual leader.

Additionally, if I were given the ability to return to school to acquire a degree that would benefit my school today, I would study for an MBA, not a degree in education. By opening ourselves up to a broader view of potential school leaders, our pool will increase dramatically. Successful Jewish executives in the for-profit or not-for-profit world, who are looking to move into a career where they can make a difference in the lives of our students and impact on our communities, may be open to considering a role as a head of school. These individuals can bring incredible talent and important skill sets to the table.

The first step in moving in this direction is for Jewish day schools to achieve clarity on what is expected of each position, how to measure success in that position, and how to hold individuals accountable. With clarity, we can define the skills and behaviors required to meet these expectations and can then assess candidates, teachers or otherwise, against the appropriate criteria on an absolute basis. This process will lead us to a willingness to explore a variety of resumes when embarking on a search for a new head of school.

Many will find this idea threatening and protest vigorously. They will argue that my approach is far too corporate and schools don’t run like businesses. They will claim that bringing someone in from the outside who does not understand school culture is an experiment doomed to fail. While I agree that there are differences between schools and businesses, we are not as different as one would think. It is ironic that many in the business world, when faced with the question of hiring a CEO internally or externally, make the same argument. They argue that the culture of their industry is fundamentally and radically different than other industries, and bringing in an outsider is destined to result in catastrophe.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel in this area; there is much literature about the process of hiring a CEO externally. Of course, one must be sensitive to the fact that each industry has its own character and unique attributes. For some, profit may be the bottom line, while others are far more invested in developing positive values as part of their culture. At times a CEO may have the personality to thrive in one industry, but will fail miserably in another. Schools are no different. Hiring a successful CEO from a different industry to take over a school without thoughtful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate is imprudent. If the process is managed correctly, however, our schools can broaden their search for qualified candidates to lead our schools and we will be the better for it.

The future of the Jewish community is dependent, to a large extent, on strong, talented and capable leadership. As such, it is critical that we find the best and most capable leaders to guide our Jewish day schools, the most important of Jewish institutions, into the future. The ultimate beneficiary of these changes will be our children, the future of our community. ♦

Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at Denver Academy of Torah, where he recently founded Yeshivat Shaarei DAT High School, and the founding rabbi of the DAT Minyan. He can be reached at

Daniel Alter
Attending the Crisis of Leadership
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership