Commentary: Leading Like Firefighters

Consider this parallel to our own work: firefighters figured out that it's far better—for everyone, not just themselves—to prevent fires, rather than wait until they break out. And countless lives have been saved as a result.

To accomplish this feat, firefighters had to set aside any fear that they’d be seen as lazy or self-interested by promoting prevention. They had to set aside any pretensions of heroic martyrdom.

In effect, they had to become professionals, demand professional respect, and advocate for policies that would achieve the best possible results.

In every major city today, fire departments are highly professionalized. Firefighters spend most of their time on proactive work, like visiting schools and supervising fire drills, or inspecting sprinkler and alarm systems to ensure that they work.

Does every firefighter get to look like a Hollywood hero, carrying limp-bodied victims to safety, and bringing them back with CPR?

No. That hardly ever happens—and that's a good thing.

“How Instructional Leaders Can Create Healthy Work-Life Boundaries,”

Justin Baeder


Rabbi Benjy Owens

Head of School, Margolin Hebrew Academy-Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, Memphis

I am writing these words in a time in which humanity is confronted by a coronavirus pandemic and in a place that has not (yet) been significantly impacted by the virus. Globally, many are sick and some have died. More are in quarantine. Classes in many schools are suspended. Gatherings, large and small, are being curtailed and in some cases canceled. People are scared.

My time is occupied with COVID-19. I think about personal risk and risks to my family, but these concerns generally remain at the periphery of my attention. I am consumed by other questions: How can we best reassure parents and children during this time of heightened worry? What preventative measures should we implement? Whose guidance should we follow when everyone has something to say? How can we advance student learning when school is closed?

Time, like all created resources, is finite. Time is my tool only while I am alive. Like these firefighters, I am challenged by this threat to life and limb, in a time before the danger has arrived, to best mitigate the risks to the members of my community and to the institution that is in my charge. I am challenged to maximize time by effectively using time.

Allison Oakes

Head of School, Hillel Academy, Tampa

Perhaps it is the day after report cards or progress reports, or maybe it is the day after a child was disciplined, or maybe it is the day after the bus was a half hour late, or maybe it was the day after a parent discovered by reading the online gradebook that their child missed five homework assignments and failed a test. Who are we kidding? It isn’t the day after! The deluge of emails, texts and phone calls begin immediately to the teacher, the principals, the head of school and sometimes even members of the board. This tsuris could have been avoided with a proactive, warm, supportive and solution-oriented communication philosophy.

Our communication philosophy ensures that parents and educators work in partnership, a hallmark of our school program. When implemented as designed, the benefit is for the student mostly because emotion is tempered. Parents and educators can work together to help a child develop into the best version of him- or herself. Additionally, when parents and educators are working in concert, the school climate is one of positivity and not tension.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin

Head of School, North Shore Hebrew Academy, Great Neck, New York

The movie versions of teachers are just as inaccurate as those of firefighters: Mr. Holland’s Opus or Lean on Me are as unreal as Backdraft. Our professional lives are not usually overtly dramatic. No film shows the mundanity of a teacher preparing a class or grading papers (unless such scenes are played for laughs). Indeed, many of our moments of connection with students take place in the least dramatic moments: a whispered conversation in the hall between classes, or in a comment we write in the margin of a paper that the student remembers for years to come.

But like the firefighter, practically all that educators seek to do is proactive: We are preparing people—not kids, but people—for life, and life is unpredictable. The very concept of a Torah she-be’al peh, an Oral Law, a set of principles to interpret the written law, is by definition proactive: We reinterpret ancient texts and apply them to modern situations. The flexibility built into the system teaches our students that what is old can be new again. This is proactivity.

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HaYidion Time Spring 2020
Spring 2020