Is An Ideological War Winnable? The Jewish Press 8.6.2014

Anyone who understands the conflict in Gaza knows the war Israel is waging is ideological, not political.

Of course, this is not the first ideological war our nation has faced. For centuries our people have suffered at the hands of others who sought spiritual salvation or other ideological benefits through terror and death. Somehow they would save their souls by snuffing out ours, through the use of rhetoric, abuse, torture, and death. In more recent times we confronted a new, more fiendish Nazi foe, who simply wanted us gone, with no spiritual intent.

For Hamas, it’s annihilation or bust, which is why Hitler is so popular in the Arab world. The problem for Hamas, though, is that it has no capacity to actualize its true agenda, so it long ago embraced a horrifying Plan B.

Consider Hamas’s tactics. Forget for the moment the endless barrage of missiles or even the terror tunnels. By using their own people and communal institutions as shields for their fiendish activities, Hamas leaders clearly don’t want their situation to improve, at least not in the way most people measure improvement.

The only victory or gain Hamas can potentially claim is in the court of public opinion, by persuading the international community into thinking Palestinians are being indiscriminately maimed and slaughtered by their Zionist enemy. This is something they have been able to do through a strong network of anti-Semitic collaborators and a complete misrepresentation of facts through mainstream and social media.

Such a struggle begs basic questions, like, “If offering land, economic improvements, and even autonomy will not help, what will?” Certainly Israel cannot bow its head to the jihadist agenda. Are Israelis forced, then, to resign themselves to a future in which they will have no rest so long as their neighbors place Islamic militants in positions of authority?

I would like to focus on a different question. What would happen if, God forbid, Hamas and its satanic allies were truly successful in their aim? How would they feel? After the initial street celebrations play themselves out and reality sets in, would they be happy with total control of “Palestine”? Would they achieve some euphoric bliss that made the entire struggle worthwhile? Or would their lives continue to reflect the inhuman squalor and societal injustice that have been the hallmarks of fundamentalist Muslim governments?

Jewish tradition teaches that if we are to understand the essence of a matter, we should study the details of the first related incident in the Torah. Before leaving for Rome, Rabbi Judah the Prince would review the story of Jacob and Esau for clues on how to deal with an implacable adversary.

Based on the above, I submit we do the same.

The struggle between history’s most famous (non-Roman) twins occurred on many levels. At its core was a fundamental difference in how they viewed happiness and satisfaction.

There are two principles of life which we meet in Jacob and Esau , and the fight between them is what the history of the world consists of: Family life which is happy and dispenses happiness in Jacob, and the glitter of political power and greatness in Esau . For thousands of years the battle has raged; whether it suffices to just be human beings, and all social, political power and organization have only importance as means of ensuring this goal of all human endeavors to be reached, or whether all that is humane in mankind, all family and home life, has only importance as trophies of politics to serve as a background.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Genesis 32:8)

Jacob, the “simple man, dweller of tents” (Genesis 25:27) was content with his lot. To him, the inside was of most value, and who could be more internally fulfilled than a Torah scholar who had raised multiple children to God’s service? He “had all” (Ibid 33:11) in literal and emotional terms. Esau , by contrast, was motivated by external qualities such as fame, power, and influence. Despite possessing much more than his twin in material and political respects, he could only muster that he “had much” (Ibid 9).

A people secure in its mission does not need to achieve spirituality and fulfillment at the expense of others. When the Torah demands that we annihilate a nation such as Amalek, it does so because of the spiritual threat that nation poses, not because we need to save its soul as part of our own redemption.

In contrast, all the nations that have sought to enhance their standing at our spiritual or physical expense have operated out of a position of core deficit. They had little positive to offer and nothing of value was proposed to fill the void, which means they would never achieve genuine contentment.

An adversary that can never be happy is an extremely dangerous enemy indeed. I offer my prayer that one day Hamas and its many Arab allies will come to echo Esau’s words when he said, “Let what you have remain yours” – so that we can live with greater peace and security until the time of our final redemption.

Transition tips for new leaders - SmartBlog on Leadership 8.5.2014

A leadership transition is one of the most important yet underappreciated aspects of a new leader’s experience. It helps to frame the new leader’s role and the relationship that he develops with his team. If managed well, such transitions can make all the difference in promoting acceptance from within the ranks, and allowing the new leader the time and patience necessary to get acclimated and begin to build equity.

One of the most successful transitions on record occurred in antiquity. The Bible records that God chose Joshua to succeed the venerable Moses at a historic time for the young Hebrew nation (the new leader was charged with bringing his people across the Jordan River and conquering Canaan).

God’s choice of Joshua, Moses’ student, to serve as the next leader was certainly met with enthused support by the aging prophet. Moses publicly handed the reins of leadership to his prized disciple, in a manner that made clear to everyone that Joshua was God’s leader of choice and had his complete backing.

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)

Of course, the stakes for most leadership transitions are not as high as they were back in the Sinai Desert. But that doesn’t make them any easier, especially as incoming executives do not enjoy open divine support, not to mention the backing of one of history’s greatest leaders.

Let’s take a look at a more recent example. Following the 2007 baseball season, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre found himself in an uncomfortable situation. His team had once again been unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs, this time in the division round by Cleveland. In the offseason, he received a tepid vote of confidence from team management, which came in the form of a one-year contract-extension offer.

Torre decided that the time was right to move on (he headed off to Los Angeles to manage the Dodgers). The leading candidates to replace him were Joe Girardi and Don Mattingly, disciples (as Yankees coaches) and former Yankees players (Girardi played under Torre; Mattingly, a Yankee hero, retired the season before Torre became the Yanks’ skipper). Eventually, it was Girardi who was selected to replace his former boss and mentor.

Obviously, replacing Torre was no simple task. Though he had fallen off a bit in recent years (the Yankees had not been to the World Series since 2003 and had not won since 2000), Joe Torre was still a New York star, someone who had brought the Yankees back to earlier levels of greatness following years of failed expectations and instability under owner George Steinbrenner. He was a born and bred New Yorker and a real class act.

His would be a tough act to follow, particularly with the media. Add to the mix that Girardi was hired instead of the great Mattingly and you can just imagine the pressure that he was facing during his first spring training in 2008. In the words of General Manager Brian Cashman, “Anybody trying to follow that, it’s an impossible job. So I think the transition was tough for Joe Girardi to establish who he was in the shadow of Joe Torre.”

How did he manage to make it in the denizen of New York under such conditions? Specifically, how did he survive year one, the first year since the strike-shortened 1994 season in which the Yankees failed to qualify for postseason baseball?

Surely, there were many factors that helped Girardi, including winning the 2009 championship. But the current skipper also credits the man that he followed. In reflecting on that experience with reporter Barry Bloom, Girardi spoke about his approach as well as the support that he received from Torre. “I think any manager that you follow, it’s important that you do it your own way,” Girardi said. “That was the first thing Joe told me. But obviously there was a ton of success here and there was an expectation here. It was important to me to carry on that success and expectation. In that way, it was a little bit difficult. But Joe made it easier because of some of the discussions that we had.”

By taking the time to prep his successor, Torre helped the “other Joe” become more comfortable, which helped him to eventually achieve genuine success.

Naturally, each transition process is different. The outgoing leader may not always be so supportive, especially if there was no pre-existing relationship or there existed a strained relationship between them or with other members of management. But incoming heads and managers would be wise to do whatever they could to learn from and gain the support of the people they will be succeeding.

Moreover, it’s really important for new leaders to learn as much as they can from the outgoing executive. Work to understand the history and the players, the special relationships and other interpersonal nuances. Find out whatever you can about past challenges and successes, as well as the cultural components that define the organization and the way that others relate to it. An outgoing leader can be a treasure trove of information, and oftentimes really wants to be able to help and share. By demonstrating interest, the new leader shows that he respects the efforts and individuals who brought the organization to its present form.

Tips for effective classroom observations - SmartBlog on Education 8.4.2014

One of the time-honored practices of school leaders is to visit classrooms and conduct teacher observations. These visits are intended to provide teachers with constructive feedback about their performance and help them enhance their professional practice. They also help principals keep tabs on instruction and evaluate teacher performance. While the goals behind teacher observations are laudable, the process sometimes does not follow the script and can even lead to frustration and resentment for both parties.

For teachers, observations can oftentimes be disruptive. Even when notified previously, the presence of one or more administrators can interrupt the flow of class and be unnerving. Many worry about what is going through the mind of their supervisor and fret over the post-observation feedback that they will receive — if they get any at all.

Many principals struggle with the process as well. When should they observe and how often? How much time should they be spending in the classroom? Do they need to notify the teacher ahead of time? What will they be looking for? When and how should they offer feedback? How can they use this experience to promote teacher growth and evaluation?

I experienced these issues firsthand, as a teacher and then as a principal. As a teacher, I knew what it was like to be visited often, as well as to go an entire year without an administrator walking in. I remember the highs of positive feedback and the lows of feeling that the principal really did not know what I was doing in class or how successful I was in my classroom. My years in administration allowed me to conduct many affirming, growth-oriented conversations with teachers. I also had too many talks with teachers that seemed awkward at times, or made me feel that I had not done enough to set the right tone.

The following represents a short list of suggestions for principals that I believe can make classroom visits and observations productive, constructive and positive for all parties.

  • Clarify intentions. Let teachers know what it is that you seek to achieve when you visit. What are you looking for, in terms of instruction, engagement and classroom management? What does good teaching look like to you? More importantly, let teachers know that the purpose of your visit is to help, not to catch them doing something wrong. Even if there is a breakdown, your interest is to help them reflect and identify better ways forward, not to get stuck in the moment.
  • Develop a common language. Use terminology that all parties understand. When analyzing the lesson, it is helpful to be able to speak about terms like objective, anticipatory set, input and closure and have the teachers know clearly what you mean. If there are terms that are unknown or ambiguous, use in-service teacher meetings to elucidate and explain their importance.
  • Take good notes. Script-tape is a way of keeping copious notes that allows you to drill down and achieve greater understanding about classroom activities and teacher rationale. By giving teachers the chance to explain before passing verdict — “tell me about when you…” — you will oftentimes find that their apparent misstep or incongruent comment was both relevant and purposeful.
  • Leave quick impressions with specificity. Pen a short note just as you are planning to exit the room. It should be positive and specific, detailing something in particular that you noticed and want to reinforce.
  • Debrief in the near term. Don’t let much time elapse between your visit and the debriefing. Teachers are anxious to hear from you and a prolonged delay can lead them to think that something was amiss or that you simply do not care enough to get back with them. Moreover, the longer the gap, the harder it’ll be for both parties to reconstruct the events and make sense of them, which is the real point of the visit to begin with.
  • Collect data. There are tools that principals can use, such as Teachscape, that can help them “check off” when they observe certain things in the classroom, such as student groupings and instructional tone. Such data can be useful to view in the aggregate, either to observe a teacher’s progression over time or to see how prevalent certain teaching practices are amongst members of staff or even subsections. For example, perhaps trends will emerge in which lower school teachers are using more cooperative and group learning and middle school teachers tend to rely more heavily on frontal lecturing.
  • Choose frequency over duration. If done correctly, a principal can gather much information and a clear understanding of what’s going on in a classroom in just a few short minutes. Short visitations allow principals to get into more rooms, which boost morale. They also put teachers at ease, as each visit is low stakes and part of a natural, organic process, not based on a concern.
  • Use a formative approach. As with formative assessment, a proactive approach gives teachers feedback in an ongoing fashion and gives all parties a chance to try to remedy problem situations in a timely fashion. Gone are the almighty summative observations in the spring that are used to determine whether a teacher is a keeper.
  • Stay to the goals. This may be the most important of all. I strongly suggest that every teacher be asked in the spring for a few goals that they wish to work on over the summer and into the following school year. The goals should be reviewed by a supervisor and agreed to. Once that’s in place, principals should try whenever possible to comment with the goals in mind. How is the teacher faring? What steps need to be taken to help support her? Staying focused on goals not only helps you check off on an important growth area, but also makes the post-observation conversation feel more natural, as the next step in an ongoing conversation.

By following at least some of these suggestions, principals can set a more positive, focused and goal-oriented tone to the observation process. The result will be happier teachers and genuine sense of fulfillment, knowing that you are satisfying one of the most important tasks in your role as instructional leader.