Here in Atlanta and across the South summer comes to an abrupt end right about… now. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like waiting around and watching everyone else get back into the swing of things, then it’s great. Otherwise it’s August, your back at school, and hoping to get a refund for your summer. As an undergrad at a university on the quarter system I remember watching all my friends head back to school and getting very antsy, even envious. I guess the South works for me in this regard.
This week was my first back in Atlanta and at school after a summer of personal and professional development. This summer I had the privilege of participating in Cohort 8 of DSLTI (The Day School Leadership Training Institute). While most of the other folks in my cohort are continuing on their summer journeys I left New York and returned immediately to Atlanta and the start of the school year. As I reflect on my first week back, here are four things I thought about, many of which arose during my time at DSLTI. I hope they resonate with other educational leaders and would love to connect with peers who are doing similar work, in Jewish education and beyond.
1. Presence. As an educational leader I try my hardest to be present. Not just physically present (though sometimes even this is a challenge), but intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually present. I could argue that it is better to be absent than to not be fully (or at least mostly) present. Not only can people tell when we’re not “with them” but we do ourselves a disservice, depriving ourselves of the rich potential in any given encounter or situation. This week I found myself trying to pause, reflect, and focus before entering meetings and conversations. Becoming conscious of presence can help us be not only more self aware, but more sensitive to needs and energy of others. This year I am challenging myself to be more fully present in all areas of my life.
2. Curiosity. The world is a mystifying place and people are truly fascinating. Given the endless variety of the human experience it shouldn’t be hard for educational leaders to maintain a posture of curiosity. Yet I would argue that it’s actually easy to let curiosity fade. Perhaps it’s because we’re expected to have answers; perhaps it’s because we are pressed for time. Curiosity slows us down and alleviates us of the potentially crushing pressure of having all the answers and being the ultimate authority. When we ask questions, when we signal genuine curiosity, when we presume to find out rather than explain, life becomes much more interesting. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a barrage of questions knows that it can get old fast, but gentle, genuine curiosity and interest help us enter into conversation with those around us, helping everyone uncover what motivates, inspires, and animates us to do what we do.
3. Language. My school is in the process of re-articulating our core values. Being intimately involved in this process has made me pause and consider the power of language. One of our core values is “community.” There’s no doubt that The Davis Academy is already a vibrant community. Overall our core values reflect not only “who we want to be” but who we already are as a school. Nonetheless identifying the word “community” as one of our core values and dedicating ourselves to using this word (in Hebrew, Kehillah) is already proving to be very powerful. I feel that I’ve become more sensitive to the question of “community” and more nuanced in my descriptions of what I feel are the unique qualities of my school community. I’ve also become more aware of growth areas and have been viewing school culture through the lens of community. This renewed and heightened sensitivity to the value of community has emerged for me because of the power of language. The flip side of naming something and making it a part of the school’s shared vocabulary is the ever present danger of losing sight of the things that are left unspoken. Jewish tradition teaches, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.” As human beings we create worlds out of words.
4. Stories. While in NYC this summer I had a chance to visit the 9/11 memorial with my DSLTI cohort. While there we took some time to share personal stories from 9/11. Hearing stories from others and having a chance to share one of my stories made me feel more connected to individuals and to the group as a whole. I felt like I’d been given a window into someone’s soul and also had a chance to share something deeply personal. Stories, no matter how seemingly mundane, are laden with meaning. Learning how to listen to stories and learning how to tell stories, particularly personal stories, is vital for educational leaders. One of my struggles with stories is that I often feel like I’ve forgotten more great stories than I remember. In some ways personal stories have a dream like quality, they are vibrant for a time and then they slip away, leaving only a vague trace. One of my goals for the upcoming year is to get better at keeping my stories.
The list goes on but this post doesn’t! Best wishes to colleagues everywhere as we lean into the 2013-2014 school year!