HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Support for the Head = Support for the School

by Judy Miller Issue: Board Leadership

Moving to a new community to become the head of a Jewish community day school is exciting and challenging, but can be overwhelming personally and professionally. Heads experience the thrill of finding a school that is a “good fit” for their education and experience and lay leadership, staff and students are excited, also. Everyone wants the new relationship to succeed.

But as anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any sort (read: everyone) knows, good relationships take hard work. When the players in a relationship are on ostensibly equal footing – such as in a good marriage- then each is charged with the very same task: bring 100% of yourself to the relationship with close attention to honesty, integrity, good humor, and a clear sense that you are “in it together.” Each has the same investment and each has the same to lose should things go awry.

The relationship between a head of school and the Board is, of course, something very different. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the players are not on equal footing: the head is the employee of the Board. The “sides” are also not equal in number: the head of school might be paired with the president, but ultimately, the other Board members figure into the equation. Significantly, too, the stakes are very different one to the other: for the head of school, at risk is both livelihood and reputation; for the Board, at risk is the leadership of the school and their collective reputation. Certainly good communications, fairness, a commitment to “no surprises” and the like are essential. One of the best ways to ensure that success is with a strong Support and Evaluation Committee.

A Support and Evaluation Committee (SEC) is small, but powerful and very effective. It is composed of people who also served on the Search Committee so they know the head well and are “on the same page” having discussed goals for the first few years. The Executive Committee of the Board should choose the members of the SEC in a thoughtful manner, looking for individuals with human resource experience, who are well-versed in the history of the school and knowledgeable about the politics of the community.

What does the SEC do? While each school will employ its own strategies, the core work of the SEC is:

  • Help the head of school monitor her/his own performance
  • Provide ongoing feedback to the head in ways that are non-threatening and focused on improvement
  • Serve as an intermediary between the head and the Board if need be
  • Immerse the head in the culture and climate of the school

Since every community has its minhag - traditions of how things are done – it is vital that the SEC meet frequently throughout the head’s first year on the job. Every 5-6 weeks is a viable and recommended schedule. The SEC and head should review the events of the past few weeks and discuss upcoming school happenings. The SEC can advise whom to contact in the community to get answers to questions and to support programming. Constant feedback and truly constructive criticism will help a head to be successful. Working in concert and engaging in our open and honest communication will lead to a successful transition.

As the second year begins, and the “honeymoon period” ends, the SEC committee may be divided into two separate committees: one to provide confidential support to the head and a second to focus on professional goals and performance.

A head of school can thrive when working in collaboration with dedicated lay leaders. Acknowledging and supporting the human side of the headship is vital to assure the strength and longevity of day school leadership. ♦

Judy Miller is the Head of School at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School in Milwaukee, WI. Judy can be reached at jmiller@mjds.org

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The role of a board is to lead—to formulate and clarify mission and policies, raise, oversee and manage funds, hire, supervise, support and collaborate with the head, all through the lens of Jewish wisdom. This issue provides guidance for day schools to find the right leaders to serve on the board, and to strengthen their leadership while they are serving.

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