HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Sizing Things Up: Two Leaders of Large Day Schools Share What Works

by Shana Harris and Cathy Lowenstein Issue: Size Matters
TOPICS : Leadership

Two leaders of large schools in Canada exchange reminiscences about their careers and thoughts about the components that have enabled them to succeed and their schools to thrive.

Shana Harris, head of school at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, and Cathy Lowenstein, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT) in Vancouver, are both experienced leaders of large Jewish day schools. Bialik recently opened a second branch and is about to embark on construction of phase two of a four-phase building in order to meet the demands of increasing enrollment. VTT is about to break ground on a $20M campus campaign to expand its premises to accommodate growing enrollment and better support the new frontier of 21st century education.

Recently, the two school leaders spoke about the challenges they have encountered as the dimensions of their work have increased. Their relationship—and now friendship—began when Shana mentored Cathy through the Lookstein Center’s Principals Program. Cathy then left public education to teach at Bialik where Shana was her administrator.

CL: I remember those early days at Bialik. Everything was new to me coming as a former public school employee. There was a very specific pace to the day and a new culture to learn and I appreciated how you arranged a mentor teacher to facilitate my integration. Equally important was the time you gave me every week. Although you were not formally my mentor, I certainly viewed you as one and enjoyed our conversations and trusted your sound advice. And when a teacher trusts her administrator, I believe great things can happen in the classroom.

SH: Those Wednesday morning meetings were meaningful for me as well. Even though I have been a school administrator for quite some time, the teacher in me still reigns supreme so the opportunity to “teach” my teachers is a very satisfying aspect of my job. As our school has grown, however, it has become increasingly difficult to carve out that sacred time with my faculty. I am lucky to have a wonderful team of administrators and department heads to ensure our teachers are well cared for and properly mentored and supervised, but I do miss that direct interaction with them. It is important for me to build trust and that can only be accomplished through adequate time to build a relationship. As head of a growing and bustling school with two branches, I realize this is increasingly difficult to do, and it is something I miss.

CL: I agree. I, too, have a great leadership team which has its finger on the pulse of the day-to-day initiatives, activities and any issues that may come up. I trust them to be on the front lines, especially with respect to our faculty. And as much as I try to check in, the demands of my job mean I am often pulled in many different directions daily. As head of school, my job description focuses more on the “macro” than the “micro.” Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to accept that my role is so broad that I miss some of the most rewarding aspects of school life.

SH: Integrating teachers into the life of a big school comes with its own set of challenges. It’s important to have safety nets built into your structure to set them up for success. New teachers, especially, need to find a place where they can feel safe and secure. They are one of the school’s most important assets so the investment is worth the effort and expense. We pay our teacher mentors to support new teachers. This allows new teachers to ask for help without guilt or fear of being a burden. Both mentor and mentee feel good about the arrangement.

CL: Yes, what’s interesting is that you mentored me through my action-research project on establishing a mentorship program at Vancouver Talmud Torah. Through your guidance, we created a very successful program that benefitted both mentor and mentee, not just because mentors received additional compensation, but because teachers on both sides believed they learned and improved their practice through the relationship. We have now evolved the model to a Teacher-Leadership initiative, which maintains the mentorship component, but gives the teacher-leaders added responsibility and more creative input into curriculum and school programs.

SH: There are definitely mutual and reciprocal benefits to both parties. It’s especially gratifying to witness “lifelong learning” in action. This should be a personal learning goal for every teacher and administrator, regardless of their years of experience in the classroom or in administration.

CL: Earlier I mentioned the challenge of integrating into Bialik’s new and unfamiliar school culture when I first arrived. Even though I am Jewish, and had children attending Jewish day school, adapting to a large day school environment was like learning a new language. Think of all that one has to learn in the first couple of years: dual curriculum, faster pace, involved parents, holidays and celebrations that can disrupt the typical flow of a classroom day. For both Jewish and non-Jewish teachers alike this can be a culture shock. Then there’s curriculum night, report cards, parent-teacher conferences. All schools have these events on their calendar, but the pace and volume, coupled with the high expectations of our parent body, make the stakes feel even higher. I agree that the foundation to managing all these demands is proper support for your faculty, especially new teachers.

SH: There are so many anxiety-provoking events in the life of a teacher. And in the age of email and social media, it feels as though everyone must be available 24/6. I certainly feel that way. Did I mention that one has to be married to an angel to do this job well? It also helps to have colleagues whom I can contact as a sounding board or source of support. No matter where we fall on the spectrum, we need to surround ourselves with people who will guide us, prop us up when needed, and give us a hard dose of truth when necessary. Neither teachers nor administrators can operate in a vacuum. We are all interdependent.

CL: I know how reassuring it’s been to reach out to you over the years when I’ve confronted obstacles at work. It’s always helpful to know you’re not alone.

SH: There was a time when I knew every student and every family at Bialik. Now that we have two campuses and continue to grow, this is almost an impossible task. And it makes me sad. It is so important to me that every family feels welcomed and valued at our school. I don’t want anyone to feel anonymous or alone. Our school is ultimately one large family and I would like everyone to feel part of that family. As my role and responsibilities evolve, I trust that members of our administrative team maintain those close, intimate ties that I once had with my faculty and families.

CL: I can certainly relate to that. When I first joined VTT, I took pride in the fact that I could name every child and every parent. Now when I greet parents in the morning, it takes me longer to get to know each family because of our large size. It can be quite frustrating because I am by nature a people person and I value the relationships I build with our families. The upside is that our school is growing, which is wonderful for a small Jewish community like Vancouver, and that more and more children and families are benefiting from a Jewish education. I have complete trust in my leadership team to take the time I can’t to build those relationships and to inform me when a situation requires more attention, more thought, or more care. I have had to learn how to let go and delegate. One of the advantages of a big school is that we have a number of good people managing the school and we can delegate responsibilities to them.

SH: I couldn’t agree more. Trusting those in your inner circle to do their jobs competently is key to your success and to the success of the school. But, letting go of some things is hard. One has to stay focused on the big picture if the goal is to keep the school strong and vibrant. And, if something doesn’t come to your attention, you have to trust that you don’t need to know about it.

CL: Working with boards is another of our significant responsibilities. Over the years, I have learned how to work with my board and carefully distinguish between what are board responsibilities and what are my responsibilities. When we were smaller and growing and when our board was less developed, our lay leaders were more involved operationally and in the day-to-day matters of the school. With growth and complexity, however, both the board leadership and I have had to step back and understand that their involvement is centered around governance, strategic planning and financial oversight. That shift took time and it was not always easy.

To be an effective head of school, knowing that I have the unequivocal support of my board and that they trust my decision-making abilities is paramount. Nevertheless, there are times when I need a sounding board, to run my ideas past others, and having an excellent head support team facilitates this. We meet on a scheduled basis which allows me to discuss some of the more pressing issues facing the school in a confidential and honest setting.

A head of school’s relationship with his/her board is critical to running an effective organization. I have had the good fortune to work with outstanding and committed presidents, vice presidents and members of my head of school support and evaluation committee. Strong board leadership has significantly benefited the school.

SH: Effective board recruitment, coupled with board mentorship, regular professional development and strategic planning is best practice and one of the key factors in setting up a school for success. Just as we assign support and mentorship for our new teachers to flourish, so should a head of school receive the right balance of mentorship and support from his/her head of school support and evaluation committee. The relationship should be one of total transparency and trust. I credit part of our success to the many board members who have shown faith and confidence in us all these years.

Additionally, I believe that one of the strengths of our schools is that we have implemented many changes while still staying true to our founding missions and philosophies. Over the past number of years we have dramatically reduced the size of our board, and this has resulted in more effective governance practices. In addition, we have implemented programmatic changes in our general and Jewish studies, including the implementation of differentiated instruction, significant increases in resource staff to provide remedial support to our students, the establishment of professional learning communities, and data gathering in various areas to measure, report on progress and implement changes as necessary. While both of our schools have implemented program changes to ensure that our students have the best learning opportunities, we still maintain the valued traditions that keep us unique. These include our commitment to academic excellence, Ahavat Yisrael and the development of Jewish values and mentschlichkeit.

CL: Yes, indeed! It takes tremendous fortitude to stay on track and honor the school’s value system in the midst of much pressure from stakeholder groups. It is a challenge to do so, but keeping our vision focused on our values enables us to maintain our high standards and give our students the very best general and Jewish learning opportunities. As I look at our students and alumni, I am proud of how committed they are and of their incredible achievements.

SH: Cathy, we are both privileged to be heads of school at two very special educational institutions that are continuing to grow and flourish. Although large schools can be challenging to lead and manage, they enable us to offer a large number of Jewish families the gift of an excellent Jewish education. ♦

Shana Harris is head of school at the Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto. sharris@bialik.ca

Cathy Lowenstein is head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah. clowenstein@talmudtorah.com

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Size Matters

In the Jewish day school ecosystem, schools can range from a few dozen students to more than a thousand. How does school size impact education, school governance and administration? Articles in this issue address a range of challenges and successes found in small day schools, while looking at the issues large schools face as well.

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