HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


HeadLiners: Making Commitments - A Head of School’s Reflections on Leadership

TOPICS : Leadership

Just over four years ago, when I was chosen to be the founding headmaster of the new Jewish community high school in Houston, I considered at length the sort of culture I wanted to help create. More specifically, I thought of the different schools I had attended as a student and how each sought to inculcate certain behavioral norms — reflecting on those that were effective and those that were not.

In addition, having had recently served on the board of directors of a local charter school that required students to sign contracts, I thought about that approach: Was that a viable option that would meaningfully impact our kids? In part, I concluded yes; in part, no. I very much liked the notion of a student entering into a written agreement with the school; but if the terms were determined in advance by the administration, it seemed to me we lost a valuable teaching opportunity. For such an agreement would be tantamount to the terms having been dictated. Instead, why not allow a group of students decide for themselves to what standards they would hold themselves accountable? I much preferred the idea of “commitments” rather than “commandments.”

For this approach, where expectations were not externally mandated, but instead were internally generated, was more consistent with what I envisioned. Such a school culture would not only be a more pleasant environment in which to teach and learn, but it would be more likely to help develop an ethical sensibility and sense of character that was likely to endure over the course of a life-time. In addition, this philosophy jibed nicely with our theological approach in Judaic Studies. Meaning, while we certainly treat Torah and tradition with great reverence, as a pluralistic Jewish day school, I want students to view religious text and issues of authority critically. So, before they ever even sat in a classroom on our campus, the Pioneer class of 9th graders — who just graduated this past spring! — worked at an off-site retreat to create the student ten commitments, which since then all subsequent entering students read, review and sign.

But in keeping with a school culture that seeks to treat students as mature members of a learning partnership, we decided that members from the other two constituencies — parents and teachers — should make similar commitments. So four years ago, members from these two groups also gathered and went through the same exercise as the students had — they wrestled with what mattered most and set goals for their respective behavior. And again, to this day, all parents sign their commitments, as do all teachers who post theirs in their classrooms!

Together, these three sets of documents continue to help set the tone of Emery/Weiner. We review them annually, discuss them regularly, and hold all members of our school community to them. And by so doing, we work to effectuate a unique school culture that is ostensibly less formal in tone, and yet in practice is every bit as rigorous in the content of character we seek to develop.

Student, Parent and Teacher Ten Commitments can be found on the opposite page.

Ten Commitments

Student Ten Commitments

I, the undersigned, commit to the following:

  1. To treat all members of the school community, including other students, teachers and staff with respect.
  2. To be honest in all that I do.
  3. To be respectful of all property, personal and public.
  4. To exercise my freedom of speech in such a way that it does not disrupt class or hurt other people.
  5. To listen and communicate with other members of the school community.
  6. To resolve all disputes in a non-violent manner.
  7. To be prepared for and participate in class.
  8. To be tolerant of other people’s differences.
  9. To se high expectations for myself and seek to improve in all that I do.
  10. To demonstrate good sportsmanship.

Parent Ten Commitments

I, the undersigned, commit to the following:

  1. To take an active role in my child’s education, and to help my child succeed academically, socially and emotionally.
  2. To ensure that my child arrives at and is picked up from school and school functions timely.
  3. To respect diversity in religious observance and belief.
  4. To abide by the religious standards of observance set by the school.
  5. To expect my child to abide by all school regulations and student commitments—relating to dress code, academic performance, the treatment of others or property—and to support the school in the enforcement of its regulations and commitments.
  6. To make myself available for consultation with faculty and administration upon their request and conversely, to find appropriate ways and times to communicate with them, if I so desire.
  7. To respect the school’s educational choices for my child.
  8. To refrain from lashon harah (speaking badly of others).
  9. To discuss with my child the dangers of alcohol and drug use.
  10. To recognize that I, not the school, must take ultimate responsibility for the actions of my child.

Teacher Ten Commitments

I, the undersigned, commit to the following:

  1. To treat with respect all members of the school community.
  2. To be compassionate, responsive and available to students, parents and colleagues.
  3. To affirm the individuality of each student and the religious pluralism of our community.
  4. To ask for help when I need it, and to provide help when I am able.
  5. To create a classroom environment that is academically rigorous, and yet is still a safe and supportive space for risk-taking, exploration, and creative expression.
  6. To communicate effectively and appropriately with all members of the school community, to retain a sense of humor, and to participate actively in the school community by sharing my views and ideas.
  7. To be consistent in the application of classroom and community standards.
  8. To develop a fair and authentic grading system that reflects that goals of the class and the methods of instruction.
  9. To strive to find a balance between my professional life and my personal life to the advantage of both.
  10. To have emunah—meaning trust or faith—in my colleagues, my students and myself.
Stuart Dow is the Head of School at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX. He can be reached at sdow@emeryweiner.org.

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