Paul is Prizmah’s founding Chief Executive Officer

A Tu Bishvat Message From Our CEO

Tu Bishvat, amidst the kabbalistic traditions, delightful children’s songs, and dried fruit, has an important halachic role. To properly observe the biblically ordained laws of orlah (avoiding eating the fruit of a tree younger than three years old), we need to keep track of the age of trees. Enter the rabbinically decreed New Year for the trees, a date dedicated to tracking and marking time.

As we celebrate this day, we marvel at and rejoice in the growth and transformation of trees, which move from seeds and saplings to bearing fruit ever so quickly. Trees themselves mark the passage the time, each ring a sign of another year past. On Tu Bishvat itself, we track and celebrate growth.

A few weeks ago, my family in England had an unexpected brush with celebrity. My mother, a German refugee who survived the Holocaust as a hidden child in Nazi-occupied France, was photographed with my niece by the Duchess of Cambridge. Their photograph will be part of an upcoming exhibit of portraits commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Duchess published the moving portrait of my mother, together with photos of the two of them meeting at Kensington Palace, on her Instagram feed. After their initial meeting, my mother and Kate were again pictured together when the Duke and Duchess were guests of honor at the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration event in London. Their voices and presence create headlines every day, and successfully shone a brighter light on the importance of this anniversary. Kate described my mother, together with a second survivor she photographed, as “two of the most life-affirming people that I have had the privilege to meet.” She described the purpose of the portraits as ensuring that “[their] memories will be kept alive as they pass the baton to the next generation.”

I keep thinking about the portrait she took and what it represents. The staging and lighting of the photograph were designed very specifically by the Duchess to capture this unique moment. A survivor of World War II with her 11-year old granddaughter, light streaming in from the hopeful east, wartime artifacts (my mother’s German identity card, marked with a “J” for Jude-Jew) shared across the generations. The photograph is very much a moment in time, a moment that marks time, bridging the past with the future. The image captures the gaze of a young girl learning through the shared experience of her grandmother, committed to re-telling that story in order to learn its lessons.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks articulated a crucial lesson he learned from Holocaust survivors, when he said: “To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.”  The photograph of my mother does this, aesthetically and generationally. Our shared work in Jewish day schools also does this every day, child by child, family by family, community by community. By securing our Jewish future through vibrant and sustainable schools, in some ways we heal the tragedies of our collective past.

So this Tu Bishvat, while I still chuckle at the thought of my mother rubbing shoulders with royalty, I appreciate how the day’s focus on trees and marking time can catalyze a deeper appreciation for the relationship between past and future. And I give thanks, both for the trees which beautify our world, and the hundreds of Jewish day schools in which tens of thousands of Jewish futures are growing to fruition.

 

 

 

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Paul is Prizmah’s founding Chief Executive Officer

The Power of Network

As early as my second week at Prizmah, I saw first-hand the power of our Network of Jewish day schools. While getting to know a school leader, I was asked a question that reached to the core of the character of their school, and honestly was beyond my scope of knowledge. “I’ll get back to you on that,” I replied, thinking that our Prizmah team of experienced day school professionals would pull out just the right answer. But, when I shared the question with my Prizmah colleagues, instead of a “textbook” solution, their response was a list of five other schools who had recently grappled with the identical question. These peers provided that leader with better answers (gained through experience) than a single “expert” might offer. That is an example of the Network at work, and the knowledge of the field in action. There is no textbook, but there are plenty of solutions.

Being part of a Network means contributing and accessing the everyday “real-world” expertise that builds stronger schools, and a supportive, vibrant field.

In the past year, day school professionals and lay leaders have connected, shared, learned, created, and driven impact through the Prizmah Network at an astounding rate.  1100 field leaders, from over 230 schools, joined us at the March, 2019 Prizmah Conference and collectively Dared to Dream; 163 schools participated in a Prizmah Reshet group (which had 200 new members this year); 1305 resources were launched in our new digital Knowledge Center and have been accessed by thousands of page views.

Online, at in-person gatherings, through emerging partnerships with federations and national leaders in education, Prizmah’s focus on Network points us in a strong direction to support individual schools and the day school field.

We just celebrated Shavuot, acknowledging the enormous gift—matan—of Torah. When we call the holiday “z’man matan Torateinu” or “time of the giving of our Torah,” we are actually celebrating a collective experience, as Torah is referred to in the plural possessive. Rashi teaches that both the Written Law and the Oral Law were transmitted to Moshe at Sinai. While the Written Law—Torah she’bichtav--speaks in one Divine voice, the Oral Law--Torah she’be-al peh, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, Midrashim--contains multiple voices across generations. There is an inherent intricate network of diverse voices and opinions offering insight, advice, and instruction.

The Oral Law provides a model for understanding our world and addressing the challenges we inevitably encounter. When we gain access to the experience of others, when we draw on past examples to inform present action, when we debate—even loudly—about our differences, we strengthen our ability to deliver on our mission. The Prizmah Network is predicated on just such a philosophy.

For our Network to fulfill its potential demands that we create space for the myriad voices to be raised, that we construct pathways for connection among practitioners, and that we encourage portals and access to other providers of expertise.

“Do what we do best and connect to the rest” was a kind of informal mantra we used in talking about Prizmah right from launch. Convening the Network means sometimes being in the center and sometimes stepping aside so that people can connect directly.  Oftentimes it means connecting to experts, providers or resources throughout the Network. Primarily, being the Network convener means making it easy to both access and provide knowledge for each other.

In the coming months, we will be concentrating our efforts on strengthening the Prizmah Network with the voices of even more day school leaders and practitioners. School leaders will be receiving information shortly about renewing or establishing their Network affiliation, while others in the field can engage by sharing resources, asking questions, and supporting the day school field. Together, we can ensure that the day school field has a living network that supports and creates tangible impact for individuals, schools, and communities, all working toward a vibrant Jewish future.

Florida art educator Debra Campbell has taught Pre-K - 8th grade art at Hillel Academy of Tampa for 18 years. She attended the Sam Fox College of Art at Washington University and received a master’s in art therapy at Goddard College. Debra has always felt the importance of being active in her community. She worked with Creative Tampa Bay as it launched its’ economic development mission to foster a region of creatives. In 2004 she formed a non-profit, Forward Thinking Initiatives, that began with a mission to teach entrepreneurship to teens and developed into teaching “Artrepreneurship.” Debra was also inspired by local St. Petersburg artist Bob Barancik to work with young people developing social commentary art through an Art Not Hate program. Debra enjoys working in collage and mixed media; she aims to create visual dialogues about our environment and the meditative qualities of reflections.

My First Elephant

by Debra Campbell

Over the past 8 days I had a rare, transformative experience. What was rare was the fact that it was actually transformative, and I’m not easy to transform. Thanks to Prizmah, I joined a group of educators from Jewish day schools around the country to participate in a professional development program that looked like it was made for folks who love the arts.

The program, called Consenses, was created and taught by Sally Taylor (daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon, who, unbeknownst to them, lived in my home while I was growing up). Sally, a brilliant artist in her own right, is also a mighty fine educator. The content appeared to be of value to me as an artist and art teacher, but I wondered if it would be of much value in the area of social and emotional growth for my students or how it tied into Jewish principles. I am humbled by how much I initially underestimated the value of the experience.

Sally teaches in metaphors. The first one she spoke of was the Indian parable of the elephant and the blind men. These men, who had never seen an elephant before, come across one and try to figure out what it is by touching the part of the body they encounter first. They all claim to have the absolute truth based on their limited experience. They each ignore the others’ subjective perspectives, which are all equally true. Sally and her associate, Janie Howland, were going to try to open our eyes, our minds and our egos to understand that we do not own absolute truth; we can better listen to other points of view. Yep, I was going to encounter my first elephant.

We began by playing a game of Essences, which Sally used to play with her mom. If I were to describe Truth, what color would it be? What would it taste like? What would it feel like or smell like? Using all your senses, you experience Truth. Then we began Consenses.

The website describes Consenses as “an artistic game of Telephone using every medium of art as a language through which to grow a broader understanding of the world around us. At Consenses, we believe that the nuances of our individual experiences are lost when we use spoken word alone to express ourselves, and that more can be revealed working together than fighting for the validity of our singular and limited beliefs.”

Our prompt, given to each of us in secret, was “Why is this night different from all other nights?” from the Passover seder. We didn’t know until the end that we each had the same one. This prompt was to become our elephant.

By the end of the program, I felt like I had the experience of being all four of the children at the seder. As a human being, I learned to listen so deeply to another opinion that I could reinterpret it and share in it, even have it exist next to my own opinion.

As a teacher, I was plunged into the cold water of having to create something by using mediums that were not my strength. I had to park my ego and make music through a paper towel tube or write poetry using a meter and structure I’m sure no one has ever seen before. I then shared this with a gifted group of teachers and Sally Taylor. No one cracked a smile.

I got the chance to experience what I tell my students: There is no wrong answer. I lived the experience some of them must have when they want to create something wonderful but it doesn’t turn out “perfectly.” I think I can now ease them through the process more confidently, helping them to accept other students’ opinions and perspectives.

Back to the prompt of the age-old Jewish question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” During the process, I visualized the rabbis discussing points in the Talmud and yeshiva students studying commentary and presenting all sides. I understood Passover and the seder in a deeper way than I had ever thought about it.

As an artist, I learned that my experience mattered. It validated my style and mission and reminded me that I don’t have to appeal to everyone’s taste. In fact, I can’t appeal to everyone’s taste. I can only be part of a whole, not the whole itself. I don’t have to create art to match the couch.

Now, I can say with conviction, no one should ever think it’s just art. Art is a modality that can bridge conflict. It can communicate non-verbally those ideas that are bigger than words or less scary than words. It can diffuse differences and bypass the intellectualizing to get right down to the heart of the matter.

Thank you Sally Taylor and Prizmah for showing me my first elephant.

Ilisa is Prizmah's Senior Vice President of Engagement

Winning Deep

by Ilisa Cappell

The research on coaching is clear: individuals in coaching relationships benefit from improved work performance, relationships and communication skills. They often report increases in self-confidence, self-awareness and an ability to reflect on their own habits and motivation and how they impact others. A growing body of research demonstrates that coaching is a key lever in strengthening leadership capacity.

And yet, like any intervention focused on sustaining change, it takes time. There is no secret sauce to leadership development and there are no quick fixes. In fact, the notion of fixing is not part of the coaching mindset. Coaching is a long-term investment in individuals.

According to the International Coaching Federation, coaching is a “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership.”

The ROI from coaching is not as easily measurable as enrollment numbers or fundraising dollars. A study by the International Coaching Federation study found that the difficulty of measuring ROI was one of the biggest barriers to implementing coaching. While there is a need to develop more measurable ROI figures that demonstrate the impact of coaching, Sherman and Freas argue that “We have yet to find a company that can’t benefit from more candor, less denial, richer communication, conscious development of talent and disciplined leaders who show compassion for people.”

If we are to attract and retain top talent to our schools, if we are to develop powerful learning communities where our Jewish day school and yeshiva professionals feel engaged, find meaning, feel connection and fulfillment, we need to ensure that professional development opportunities engage the mind and the souls of our educators while helping them to embrace opportunities for growth.

Three years ago Prizmah piloted an initiative to deepen the leadership capacity of school leaders. A group of 16 school leaders developed their skills as coaches through a training program with Pearl Mattenson and Jane Taubenfeld Cohen. Each leader previously had worked with a coach; this program trained them in the skills of coaching. Our first goal was programmatic: to develop a cadre of coaches who can coach leaders in the field. Our second goal was more ambitious: to support school leaders in developing a coaching culture within their schools and to use coaching as a method for working with senior leadership teams. A commitment to coaching emerged out of Prizmah’s commitment to ensuring that our schools can continue to attract and retain top talent in the field, and that providing meaningful opportunities for leaders to develop, to learn and grow in their roles, is a key strategy to make that happen.

Coaching as Professional Development

Coaching provides a space for personal development. In contrast to interventions that treat the symptoms caused by a challenge or problem, coaching addresses the underlying issues and creates space to fully unlock one’s creative energy in a system.

For example, some leaders may struggle with time management and, in a traditional environment, they may be asked to take a course on productivity to address and fix the issue. Through a coaching lens, we take a different approach. The course on productivity may solve short-term challenges but will not address deeper and persistent issues that may be related to an individual feeling inadequate, engaging in avoidance of feelings that make them uncomfortable, resulting in procrastination. Coaching gets at the heart of the thought processes and habits that may get in the way of one’s performance in the workplace. Coaching is not about fixing someone; it is about enabling individuals to bring their full selves into the workplace. This work helps to cultivate self-awareness, a key disposition that strengthens one’s leadership capacity.

From Individual Coaching to a Coaching Culture

When our schools shift from investing in coaching for one or more individuals in a school to coaching as a key part of the school’s strategic employee development, they show they are invested and believe in their staff and in their personal and professional development. The emerging research shows that not only does this approach help to prepare individuals for their leadership positions, it also enables organizations to attract the right talent to their teams.

There are numerous ways to move from one-on-one coaching to a coaching culture. Each path requires time, intention and a vision for what is possible.

  • Create time and space for the work.
  • Develop a shared understanding of why your team is exploring a coaching culture.
  • Articulate clear goals and allocate time and resources.
  • Develop a foundation of trust and celebrate that which is going well.
  • Imagine what might be possible when working within an organization that has developed a culture of coaching.
  • Identify small, practical steps that one can take to work toward implementation.
  • Ensure celebration of success along the way.

In a coaching culture, the emphasis is less on supervising or managing employees and more about an investment in developing individual strengths, overcoming challenges and enabling individuals to be in the driver’s seat. Coaching cultures typically emphasize soft skills inclusive of empathy, awareness of one’s emotions and the impact on others; they focus on how to use that awareness to drive results and harness the change they want to see within their own areas of work and the organization. Coaching cultures provide fertile ground for employees to focus on developing behavioral change that can lead to results and professional satisfaction.

The research on the impact of coaching demonstrates that:

  • Coaching meetings between people can strengthen relationships and can increase job satisfaction and morale and strengthen bonds between individuals.
  • Leaders need to demonstrate a commitment to develop themselves through coaching.
  • Coaching requires commitment, consistency and dedication from leadership.

In a coaching culture, leaders can learn new things more quickly and adapt to change more effectively. Coaching cultures exist when groups of people embrace coaching as a way of making holistic improvements to individuals within their organizations through formal and informal coaching interactions. Coaching can form an integral approach to how leaders develop their team’s talent and can be embedded within the existing performance and feedback management systems. It can increase performance of leaders within an organization.

Coaching demonstrates a clear commitment to the growth of individuals. And this work takes time.

“Win Deep, Not Shallow”

In her book Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself, Pippa Grange talks about the notion of “win deep, not shallow.” She describes “winning shallow” as occurring when we try “to avoid not being good enough, winning to beat the other guy, winning to be seen as good enough.” In an interview with Brene Brown, Grange describes this “victory” as one born of comparison, scarcity and self-doubt.

“Winning deep,” on the other hand, is “where you actually can feel the richness of your journey, you are attached to the joy and the struggle, you are attached to the mess and it is generally done for reasons outside of yourself… Winning deep is more satisfying...and ultimately closer to unlocking our deepest potential. Because it comes from the heart, mind, and soul, it stops you seeing your potential as something you might miss out on. Instead, you see it as vast, untapped, and available. It allows you to compete and create until you have nothing left in your bones to give. And it means you’ll fear less.”
When we are grounded in an orientation of curiosity and desire to learn, we can grow. We talk a lot in Jewish education about what will attract and retain talented professionals in the field. A major study recently released by CASJE shows that Jewish educators who actively seek out opportunities to learn are often seeking personal meaning in their work. They see Jewish education as contributing to society; they have a greater love of Jewish learning and want to contribute to the Jewish community and to others. Similarly, supporting leaders through coaching cultures in our schools is one way in which to create fertile ground to nurture leaders throughout their career.

However, developing coaching cultures takes time. To bring this culture to fruition, a school needs leaders who themselves have experienced and benefited from coaching, along with champions of the culture who are able to coach one another within their school communities. As the school leaders who contributed to this issue of Kaleidoscope make clear, they have felt deeply impacted by both experiencing coaching themselves and by coaching others with whom they work.

Join me in learning about stories of impact from school leaders who have invested in their own professional growth and development and have made the choice to impact others, both within and outside of their own schools, through the intentional practice of coaching.

Peg is the head of school at Brandeis Marin, a K-8 Jewish day school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to arriving at Brandeis Marin in 2014, Peg served as the dean of Jewish studies and Hebrew at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where she also taught Jewish thought and philosophy for 10 years. She was a lecturer in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University and has taught adult education around the Bay Area for more than 25 years.

Susie has been a coach for the past six years, working with heads of school, “number twos” and boards. She has most often worked with heads beginning their tenure in schools. Most of her clients are both new to the school and new to the position.

Adam is currently the head of school at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) in Woodmere, New York. He previously served at the Katz Hillel Day School of Boca Raton for 12 years as a principal and head of school, and as a rebbe and student activities director at HAFTR High School. Some of his topics of expertise are student and teacher motivation and coaching others to achieve their personal best.


 

Rafi is the head of school at Netivot HaTorah Day School in Toronto. He has a doctorate in education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, as part of which he was a Wexner/Davidson Graduate Fellow, and has private smichah.


 

The Whys of Coaching: Four Prizmah Coaches Explore Their Work

Making Time to Reflect

by Susie Tanchel

“Coaching enables heads of school to step out of the pressures of the day-to-day running of a school and to take some time to think more deeply about how they want to show up and do their work,” says Tanchel. “In the ‘run school run’ mode, people don’t get many opportunities in the week to step back and to reflect. Coaching also gives a person space to understand how a given situation is impacting them as an individual and in their role. It’s a gift to have a place to process emotions that don’t get processed elsewhere and to have someone listen deeply to you.”

Tanchel generally meets weekly with her clients, and in her experience the coaching relationship has covered the first three years of a head’s tenure. “New leaders are establishing their leadership style, building their team, and working on a work-life balance in a job that is all-encompassing.” A coach is someone who is deeply invested in the head’s success, and not otherwise intimately connect to the school. Moreover, a coach can look at multiple perspectives with no specific desired outcome other than the head’s learning and growth.

Many new heads of school have coaching built in to their contracts, and often one of the first tasks of a new head is to find a coach. Tanchel says that having a good fit between head of school and coach is most important. She recommends interviewing two to three coaches before making a decision. “Who asked the kind of questions that made you think?” Tanchel thinks is a helpful lens through which to evaluate the match. “Did you learn something? Were you comfortable? Did you feel you could confide in this person?”

For Tanchel, coaching is sacred work. “In the coaching space or ‘container,’ heads can step back and really think more broadly about themselves as leaders. The concern about constantly being ‘on’ or thinking about who else is in the room falls away in the coaching relationship.” Importantly, coaching is not about asking a consultant for advice on a specific challenge or about avoiding mistakes. Coaching, to Tanchel, is about the client reflecting, learning and growing.

Ezer Kenegdo: Support with Opposing Perspectives

by Rafi Cashman

“Coaching is not a passive activity,” says Cashman. “It is an active mode of self-learning.”

Drawing on transformational experiences with three coaches in his career and his first years as a coach himself, Cashman believes that coaching can influence how a leader “behaves, makes choices, interacts with others, prioritizes, and does his/her work.” These so-called “soft-skills” areas can have tremendous impact.

“Leadership and change-making is most profoundly about who you are as a human being—your personality, the way you relate to others,” says Cashman. “The best prerequisites for entering into a successful coaching relationship are self-awareness and self-reflection.” Additionally, says Cashman, having a really powerful question or problem to solve is a great motivator and a great way to ensure productive growth and impact over time.

A coach understands you, comforts you, pushes you. Cashman compares the partnership to the concept of ezer kenegdo, the Biblical “helpmeet” who literally helps by offering an opposing perspective. The most productive coaching relationships are ones where people are self-reflective and vulnerable, where each side trusts each other’s best intentions.

In contrast to therapy, there is no diagnosis; in contrast to mentoring, there is no inherent power structure. “Coaching starts from a positive stance that is about rallying internal strengths to address challenges,” says Cashman. “There is an expectation of openness in a coaching relationship and a belief that individuals have within them the ability to understand and change dynamics.”

“The first two coaches I worked with were when I was in new positions. They helped me make sense of what I did not know and helped me understand how to respond to new challenges.” In his third coaching experience, Cashman came with a particular goal based on challenges he had been facing. The coach helped him identify, articulate and reframe the problem.

“Coaching starts from the mindset that there is nothing ‘wrong,’ and that individuals have within themselves the capacity to address whatever problems or challenges they are facing,” says Cashman. “The coach is there to help make sense of the challenges and bring out those inherent capacities.”

Elevating Talent

by Peg Sandel

Sandel’s idea of coaching starts with professional sports. A coach begins by looking at the strengths that a person already possesses. Coaching doesn’t really teach a new skill; it brings out the talent and expertise of the athlete in the service of driving toward a goal.

As head of school at Brandeis Marin in Northern California, Sandel is an avid consumer, promoter and provider of coaching. “Coaching can help people imagine who they might become in ways they couldn’t achieve on their own,” says Sandel. “That’s where leadership comes from.”

"Coaches help us peer into our blind spots,” says Sandel. “A coach offers perspective that can allow us to see things that haven’t yet come into view. Additionally, a coach may have been there before and can say ‘You can do this’ in a way that builds confidence in new leaders. In this way, coaching leads to growth, and that helps a leader achieve goals.”

“Sometimes, working with a coach helps someone see themselves the way others see them,” says Sandel. This is especially helpful for people embarking on new headships. “Developing an awareness of your personal leadership presence, how you hold your body, recognizing when or how you choose to speak—these are all part of knowing how you come across to others.” It is important for leaders (and teachers) to develop an awareness of their own presence. Does it make people feel uneasy and exacerbate power differentials? Or does it invite partnership?

When leaders work with a coach, they come to embrace a mindset of reflective conversation, of recognizing interpersonal dynamics and exploring how those dynamics serve shared goals (or not).

In Sandel’s experience, schools can build and develop a culture of coaching across their teams. “Even though a lot of coaching relationships are 1:1, the stance of a coach can be a great tool to build strong teams. Coaches understand that we work within a network or a system of relationships. Within school teams, it is helpful to cultivate a mindset of working collaboratively toward shared goals with a shared purpose. We may each have a different area of responsibility, but when we collaborate, we create a more cohesive experience overall.” When the leadership team embraces a coaching mindset, they see the talent and potential in others and help draw that out. They also emphasize a sense that each person is part of a whole and that the school is at its best when people support each other.

“The coaching mindset is not punitive or judgmental,” says Sandel. “It is ’How can we grow from here? Let’s get curious, and be open and honest.’” That frame of mind can be enormously helpful throughout a school community, because it creates space to reflect on successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses.

At its core, coaching is about creating a safe space where it is okay to be vulnerable about the challenges one faces at work and share concerns. In a coaching culture, mistakes are opportunities for learning. “This doesn’t mean that a coach might not share hard feedback,” says Sandel, “but the coach is there to find the teachable moment and offer support. It is a stance of partnership in facing challenges, rather than an adversarial mode.”

Hitting the Sweet Spot

by Adam Englander

Having worked with his coach for nearly eight years, Englander believes deeply in the power of coaching, which made it easy for him to decide to become one himself. “Coaching is the most important way to help a new head of school, the smartest money a school can invest in a leader. Even the most experienced head of school can find coaching enormously valuable.”

Englander describes four primary benefits of coaching for leaders at any stage of their career:

  1. Coaching affords a leader a safe place in which to talk about the most challenging issues, which almost always involve highly complex interpersonal relationships. “The best leaders are not those with extraordinary fundraising or administrative skills,” says Englander, “but the people who know how to make things work with the people on their team.” Honest conversation and role-playing can help get to the heart of challenges.
  2. Working with a coach means having a true confidante. Many senior leaders feel “lonely at the top,” and the coaching relationship relieves that sense of isolation.
  3. Coaching focuses on a sweet spot for most leaders, what Stephen Covey calls the “important but not urgent” quadrant of the Time Management Matrix. “Most leaders spend time putting out a lot of fires and often fall behind on critical things,” says Englander. “Coaching helps leaders be more proactive and own their agenda instead of solving problems all the time and inadvertently avoiding their own long-term goals.”
  4. Nothing beats the care and attention of a coach who is truly invested in a leader’s success. “When my coach knew I was having a tough week, she sent me a text just to let me know she was thinking of me,” recalls Englander. That personal relationship has sustained him throughout his years in school leadership.

In the past ten years, coaching has really become a given for heads of school, says Englander, and the effects are improving leadership at all levels of schools. “Senior leaders very often need to coach their direct reports,” says Englander. “When you have experienced coaching yourself, you can engage the same techniques.”

Getting the most out of a coaching relationship begins with a deep-rooted belief in the ability that anyone can grow and do better. Making a good match, asking the right questions and a healthy dose of humility empower a head to create an environment at school where people can perform their best.

“Coaching has been the single most impactful ingredient in my growth as a leader,” says Englander. “I hope that all senior leaders have the opportunity to experience the benefits.”

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Suzy Israel

Suzy, a Prizmah coach, is the lower school principal at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. Suzy is excited about continuing to coach school leaders in the areas of transition to the role, navigating parent relationships, curriculum oversight and development and new teacher supervision.

The Yellow Binder Isn’t Actually Missing

by Suzy Israel

As a young teacher, for the two months before I met my first class, I desperately searched for the yellow binder. I looked in every classroom but it eluded me. I searched on my hands and knees and climbed on ladders. I looked inside file cabinets, under tables, in boxes, and on every imaginable bookshelf. Nowhere. The three-inch yellow binder, the only hope I had of receiving a prior third-grade teacher’s notes and support, was not to be found, at least not yet.

That year of teaching was a challenging one for me, as the first year is for many new teachers. I struggled to meet the needs of my young learners, and I struggled with my feelings of inadequacy as a teacher. I remember the face of Jake, a happy and willing student, who finished all of his work almost immediately upon receiving it. Providing differentiation for Jake was well beyond my capacity as a new teacher, I didn’t even know where to begin. That year I worked harder than I did in any subsequent year of teaching, but my challenges were intensified by my certainty that the answers to all of my problems could be found in that missing binder.

I happened upon the yellow binder in October of my second year of teaching. It was at the bottom of a box of fresh reams of paper, waiting for me all along, and I had missed it. Over the course of the coming weeks, I paged through the binder as if I had personally unearthed the Dead Sea Scrolls. I put sticky notes in pages that I thought would be useful and annotated many of the margins. By the time I had read the binder cover to cover, I was overcome with a feeling that surprised me and continues to surprise me to this day.

The work in that binder was skillfully and lovingly prepared by a teacher who had taught the material for years before me. She had covered all of the curriculum and had spent time planning for different types of students with a variety of educational profiles. And yet, something about the contents of that binder didn’t feel quite right. As I sat and pondered the heavy binder, I thought about what I had hoped I would find within its pages. I had been eagerly searching for the answers to many of my questions—and there they were, bound by three large rings. I then thought about the students who would be in my classroom the next day and the day after that, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach directly from those materials after all.

Although I continued to refer to the assiduous work of the master teacher who left me her notes for years to come, they weren’t mine, and somehow, they didn’t quite fit. What I thought I needed, the easy access to good materials, did provide me with a feeling of great comfort and support. But I came to realize that what I really needed was to continue to spend time digging deeply within myself, to find my own voice in the classroom, and to create a binder of my own.

Solitude and Loneliness

The thing I remember searching for over 25 years ago has since become emblematic of the type of support that I have pledged to offer (and not to offer) to school leaders through my work as a coach. A professional coaching relationship is based on the belief that the coachee has the capacity to solve his or her own problems and is intrinsically capable and able to lead. In this coaching paradigm, professional and personal growth come about through a collaborative partnership of equals, aimed at maximizing the potential of the client. The work is synergistic and aims to build capacity, rather than solve a particular problem.

School leadership is paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, the leader is the public face of the school every day—at the school dinner, at a basketball game, in the local synagogue. Simultaneously, leadership is solitary. No one knows the daily demands of the job or the many directions in which one is commonly pulled. No one knows all the information that must be kept confidential, the tough decisions, the emotionally-charged conversations. Because there is only one principal, there really isn’t anyone else in the school with whom that person can truly collaborate, which is inevitably isolating.

In his article “The Effective and Reflective Principal,” former superintendent John Ritchie points out that “Solitude is not the same as loneliness, but it can easily turn into loneliness, especially when paired with the tiring public demands of the job.” Because of the complex nature of the work, a leader can feel lost in a sea of dynamic challenges and conflicting obligations, and these feelings can be compounded by expectations that he or she always knows what to do and should always exhibit bold decisiveness. A coach partners with clients to determine which are the biggest questions that need to be addressed and then explores avenues for the client to arrive at answers that fit his or her leadership style and beliefs.

Helping Leaders Create Their Own Binders

The best coach will never offer the leader a three-inch yellow binder. A coach will instead afford the leader a space to collaboratively process particular situations and empower him or her to be conscious and deliberate about decisions and pathways.

It is true that the work of the school leader can be complex and even isolating. And at the same time, it is this very complexity that makes the work immensely rewarding. Every day is filled with the unexpected, the dynamic, and the joyful endeavor of educating children.

As a coach, I have learned to always assume that my client is a capable professional, an expert in his or her field. It is my responsibility as a coach, as a thought partner to my client, to ask thoughtful questions and to actively inquire in order to facilitate the choices they are about to make based on their beliefs, and based on the contents of the binders they have written for themselves, whatever color they may be.