HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Negotiating Boundaries in a Jewish Community Day School

by Dean Goldfein Issue: Ethics

Independent school conferences and publications wisely stress the importance of drawing clear boundaries. But the interaction of stakeholders in a day school is rarely cut and dried. In real life, these lines frequently appear blurry, and heads of school are required to negotiate boundaries as they shift and are contested.

Boundary management work can both depress and invigorate. The pressures of advocates pressing for their desires can cause sleepless nights. But when done well, I feel I am at the nerve center of a vibrant learning community of dedicated professionals, lay leaders and families.

Our schools gather people passionate about Judaism and education who frequently disagree with each other but find themselves united in friendships and the work of schools. Our leadership structures interweave personal and professional relationships in complex ways: board members are parents, parents are staff members, your rabbi is a mom in your son’s class, the teacher next door is your close friend. The tone and shape of these relationships provides an important measure of school health.

As head of school I am charged to sustain and tap these passions and encourage staff and lay leaders to do the same. I proactively engage informal conversation about ideas and teaching methodologies with parents, board members and students. I share curricular ideas of major stakeholders in our staff curriculum committee. I hear from prospective, current, and alumni families to both maintain core values and react well to changing community priorities.

An example of how heads manage all this can be found in how we respond to the continuous stream of new ideas from community members. A few times a year a key stakeholder will send me a link to an exciting new educational program. It is tempting to react defensively with a statement that, while I appreciate their interest, we have a curriculum in place and it isn’t wise to expend time exploring the latest flavor of the month. I’ve found that responding with a live conversation in which I show an understanding of the topics considered allows me the chance to respond more effectively to the concern that lurks not too far beneath the surface of the new idea. Engaging new ideas with patience and respect strengthens staff’s ability to shape the curriculum and instills community confidence.

The Judaic vision of our community schools must also negotiate perspectives carefully to manage tension between personal and professional. The diverse range of families in our pluralistic Jewish schools must connect meaningfully to the Judaism of our classrooms, tefillah and community events. Too many times families depart because we’ve never made this vital personal connection. Here too, the head must listen to and advocate for a variety of voices being part of the community DNA.

This past year the challenge of providing healthy kosher lunches offered my school an opportunity to strengthen our community vision. I was approached by some parents concerned about the quality and nutritional value of our catered lunch program. They wanted the parent community to run the lunch service. I was impressed by their resolve and, after sharing my concerns about potential pitfalls and outlining our kosher guidelines, signed off on the transition. The mid-year expansion of the program certified its success but more important than the great food was the lesson reinforced. Boundaries are best negotiated when there is a consistent genuine feeling of participation in a process. There are practical reasons why we could have avoided the transition: past attempts at a parent lunch service had failed, and the impact on our small facility of three times per week lunch preparation is considerable. But in the end, the community building benefits far outweighed fears and minor downsides. A periodically contentious area, kosher guidelines, is now seen as an area that binds us, rather than divides.

Teachers with children in the school face the toughest boundary test. Such teachers affirm the value of our school, but as heads we need to be ready to accept a different kind of parent-school relationship. Establishing guidelines for staff around this challenge in summer staff meetings, and even having one-on-one meetings with teachers if there is a particular concern about a potential problem, helps to prevent some of the challenges that arise, but it won’t eliminate them.

In past years teachers have come to me with concerns about the quality of another teacher, sometimes a teacher of their child and sometimes not. This access to me as head of school is open to all parents, including employees. But when I face a teacher for such a conversation I face an educator who sometimes can claim to have seen behind the curtain. They might share comments made in the staff room, observed work habits, or claim to speak for a general “word from the parking lot.”

While this information is valuable to a head, acting on it directly is dangerous. Even a valid claim will be fraught with intricate relationship dynamics. Information that comes from teachers as parents must be explored in greater depth than another claim might. I have found that by investigating the issue more fully with other stakeholders, I become more informed and can attack the problem appropriately. Sometimes I find myself in agreement with the teacher who brought the issue and sometimes I am able to return to them for a difficult but healthy conversation on how, after spending time carefully considering their concerns, I have a different perspective.

This boundary management work can both depress and invigorate. The pressures of advocates pressing for their desires, sometimes against the policies of the school or a competing interest group, can cause sleepless nights. But when done well, I feel I am at the nerve center of a vibrant learning community of dedicated professionals, lay leaders and families. Understanding our unique role as heads in these negotiations helps limit the stress and instills confidence to act, one hopes, with wisdom and compassion.♦

Dean Goldfein is Head of School at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, California. He can be reached at deangoldfein@gmail.com.

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Jewish law and practice mandate a society based on strict ethical standards and principles, tempered with great sensitivity to the complexity of real-life situations. This creation of the mentsch that emerges from these ethical practices resonates with many day school families. Jewish ethics offers day school leaders and students tools and approaches to confront daily challenges and dilemmas and guide decision making. 

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