Things I’ve Learned

I don’t know about you, but since I became a day school principal -

  • My husband has to do the grocery shopping (unless I sneak in and out of the supermarket at 6:00 on Sunday morning);
  • In addition to loving Shabbat for itself, I love it for the fact that parents and board members can’t call me;
  • I have come to hate the parking lot where the worst conversations take place;
  • I have learned that the 4th Amendment which guarantees the right to privacy is precious indeed!

Now don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my job, wouldn’t trade it for the world, and would probably do it even if they didn’t pay me (don’t tell my president!). It is an endlessly fascinating challenge, an opportunity to do something really meaningful in my professional life, and the source of the most amazing experiences. I have been in my position for almost 20 years. Among day school principals, I guess that makes me something of a rarity. Apparently, according to RAVSAK statistics, the turnover rate for heads of community day schools is high – 20% of all positions are vacant at any time and the average head lasts less than 4 years. Why so much turmoil in the profession?

I realize that most if not all heads of community day schools are stressed by being overworked, underpaid, overwhelmed, pulled in too many directions, and answerable to too many people. But I suspect that these tensions would not be so difficult to bear were it not for one specific deficit. After all, we are heads of school by virtue of experience, expertise, a talent for dealing with children and adults, the ability to multitask and a commitment to a Jewish future in America. I think the specific lack we have is time for ourselves.

My favorite inspiration from Pirke Avot is Hillel’s tripartite declaration that begins, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” Though I used to think this seemed somewhat selfish and self-centered, I have come to realize that it is quite the opposite. As educational and school leaders, we must see to it that we meet our own personal and professional needs so that we will have the strength, wisdom and compassion to meet the needs of others.

One of the most wonderful things about working in an academic environment is that each year has a beginning and an end. Each year provides us with a fresh chance to do it better, to get it right, to make a difference. In most other jobs, things just go on and on and a certain dulling routine sets in. Not so in a school setting! Not only do the students continually change, but curricula and technology and values change. We must constantly update and upgrade. That is why the summer months for academic administrators are not just vacation time – they are time to refresh ourselves by catching up on the latest research, the hottest books, the most current thinking - not to mention a few relaxed full breaths of fresh air.

I hope that each and every head of school recognizes the importance of using vacation time to refresh, renew and recharge. It is vitally important to your own survival and to the success of your school. It is said that caregivers should allow themselves one hour per day and one day per week off. From personal experience I know that this is a bit “pie in the sky” as far as the academic calendar goes – but the concept is what matters.

And here is where RAVSAK becomes so important. As each of us works ourselves into a state of near exhaustion by mid school-year, at the point at which the term “professional development” seems like a fantasy, RAVSAK makes the dream a reality. In a warm and sunny city during a school vacation break, professional colleagues, outstanding experts and committed lay leaders gather for a few days to recharge their batteries, share experiences (both good and bad) and learn, always learn, something new, exciting and interesting.

It is good to remember as we plunge once again into the maelstrom of a new year that a refreshing oasis of personal and professional development awaits us in January. Before you get too busy, mark the dates on your calendar and make your reservations. You’ll make this year even better by starting it off with a date for taking care of yourself!

Dr. Barbara Davis is the Secretary of RAVSAK, Editor of HaYidion and Head of School at the Syracuse Hebrew Day School in Dewitt, NY. She can be reached

Dr. Barbara Davis
Measuring the Success of a School's "Jewish Mission"
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership
Published: Fall 2005