Back to School: Make this Year the Year - The Jewish Press 8.27.2014

But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven, a land the Lord, your God looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year – Devarim 11:11-12

The above verses describe our holy land and the special divine providence it enjoys. What is curious is the final segment, which details how such oversight will occur “from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” While the translation may not reflect any inconsistency, the original Hebrew states that it will occur “from the beginning of the year (“hashanah”) to the end of year (“shanah,”omitting the prefix hei).

Rabbi Paysach Krohn explains that this change of expression can be understood to reflect what one might call our new year’s resolutions. As we approach the yamim noraim, we begin to reflect intently on the outgoing year. We think about past errors and ways by which we will improve ourselves and our lives. “This year will be the year,” we tell ourselves.

For most of us, however, such remorse and resolve tends to be fleeting. Following the days of inspiration and introspection we begin to lapse back into the behaviors and attitudes of yesterday, converting “the year” into just another “year,” leaving our resolutions for change behind.

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Throughout the Jewish world, tens of thousands of children and young adults will soon be heading back to the classroom for another year of schooling. The excitement is palpable. Children and parents are busy purchasing and labeling school supplies, clothing, lunchboxes, and other related items. Teachers have been working diligently to ready their classrooms, organize materials, and foster an engaging, productive learning environment. Administrators have toiled throughout the summer to have everything in place for day one, including back-to-school programming for students and professional development for teachers.

The first day finally arrives. With great eagerness, children rise early for school, ready to reconnect with friends and meet their new teachers (assuming they haven’t yet done so). They learn new routines, begin to understand expectations, and set off on a new journey ripe with opportunity. They come home smiling (for the most part), in anticipation of more learning and activities in the days ahead. Parents are relieved that their children are happy and have begun a new cycle of learning.

Teachers may come home drained, but their first day has also been energizing. They’ve met a new group of children they will engage for the next ten months. They’ve enthusiastically shared plans, dreams, and expectations, all with the hope of achieving much success.

But a funny thing happens along the way. Our initial enthusiasm often dissipates, sometimes within a few days. We start to think of school less in terms of growth potential and achievement and more in terms of the daily grind – an endless process of work, discipline, assignments, and the like – that for too many converts opportunity and passion into burden and indifference (if not outright contempt or despair).

So what can we do to make this school year the one that fulfills all of its promise? How can we make this year the best one ever?

While there is no formula that will work for everyone, there are some strategies that if followed carefully and consistently can help our children – and us – gain the most from the upcoming school year.

Adjust your mental paradigm. Too often we think of tasks and processes as sprints. Our goal is to get off to a quick, strong start and we don’t anticipate having to sustain our effort for all that long. To succeed at school requires a different approach. Children as well as the adults who teach and support them need to take a long-term view of things. This may include general persistence and strong study habits. It also refers to a mindset that we are in it for the long haul, with much to do before we can say we’re finished (at least with this year’s work). Frequently we become disillusioned because we feel we should be done and we resent the fact that we still have a considerable way to go. If we can program our minds from the outset to think in terms of distance and long-term goals, it will be easier for us to keep going until the very end.

Clue them into the goals. Children and parents often don’t know what the year’s goals and objectives are. Most would probably say “to finish the grade.” As a former teacher, I would submit that teachers (particularly newer ones) also may begin the year with a nebulous sense of what needs to happen in order for it to be considered a success. Teachers can help themselves and their charges by offering a list of objectives (“by the end of third grade, you will have learned …and be able to…”). Even if certain individual students are unable to achieve those goals as they are presented (more about that in a bit), they give the class and the year a sense of direction and purpose.

Get to know children’s learning styles. Most instruction, particularly in elementary school and higher, tends to be auditory and visual. This means teachers rely heavily on their ability to articulate concepts, instructions, etc. and have students learn and process by listening. One common alternative to “lecture” is the use of text/board/worksheet for inputting, clarification, and review. However, it is important for us to keep in mind that there are numerous identified learning styles – and that we benefit greatly from knowing each child’s personal composition and how we can help the child customize the learning process to his advantage.

We do our children a great service by helping them understand how they learn best. They may be kinesthetic learners, who learn better when they can move as they learn. Perhaps they have strong interpersonal intelligence, and need to talk things through in order to achieve clarity. Maybe they are musical, and would be well served by being able to listen to music or put information to song as a way of deepening their learning. Quizzes are available online that can help determine a child’s learning preferences.

Teachers can help by building in various approaches into their lessons. This can be achieved through process differentiation, cooperative learning, and other techniques. Parents can help by “translating” content into a more palatable form, and also by advocating to their child’s teacher by requesting that content be presented in multiple forms, such as through the use of graphic organizers (visual spatial) and manipulatives (kinesthetic).

Communicate early and often. It is crucial for parents and teachers to develop strong lines of communication. This is true on the high school level, and all the more so in primary grades. Of course, such communication should be two-way and proactive.

I suggest, however, that parents in particular take the initiative and not wait for conferences or for things to go sideways. I can personally attest from my experience as a teacher and as a principal that involved parents are usually great advocates for their children.

This is not to say that parents should overdo it. Rather, arrive at an early understanding as to when would be a good time to catch up and endeavor to stay consistent throughout the year, even when things appear to be going well. This will minimally result in the child receiving more positive feedback and may even allow for the adults to identify an issue and troubleshoot it before it becomes something bigger.

How to you define success? Often, success in school is narrowly defined. We place on the academic pedestal those students who are able to achieve in the context of text-based learning, with a strong combination of auditory processing, note taking, memorization, and test taking skills. The rest, including those students who require additional academic supports and/or a different set of curricular expectations, typically do not thrive in such settings, and are forced to endure years of perceived mediocrity or worse in the most important areas of self-definition and social status during their formative years. And we all know what happens to children who develop low self-esteem and a general sense of disconnect and disenfranchisement with their learning.

There is no greater impediment to student success and steadfastness than tasting failure early on. It is both unfair and unethical to hold every child to a common standard and evaluate him to that end. Even if a teacher does not feel capable of differentiating learning goals and instructional content, there should be objectives in place that help students feel successful, at least on relative terms.

Same does not mean equal. To that end, children need to know that different (as in different objectives and treatment) is not unfair. If anything, we create an imbalanced playing field by asking all students, regardless of abilities, supports, etc., to perform the same way. Let students know that personal approaches are designed to meet individual needs and then help them identify and celebrate their successes.

Develop a routine. Establishing a proper daily routine can be very healthy. Routines ensure that children and their parents remain focused and organized and don’t let things get past them. Almost nothing causes greater stress in the morning than a child (or two) who’s overslept, can’t find what he needs, realizes she didn’t do an assignment, etc. Moreover, when a child goes to sleep knowing she is ready for the next day, she is more at peace and more relaxed. The goal is to keep the stress level down while also minimizing the association between school and stress.

Get excited and passionate. We cannot necessarily expect our children to be intrinsically excited about school. But we can foster enough excitement and enthusiasm to bring them along for the ride.

About eight years ago I was in attendance at the high school graduation of students I had taught when they were freshmen and sophomores. At the post-graduation celebration a young man approached me. He’d been in one of my freshman classes, for one period each day. The next year, he transferred to a different school in the community. Three years later, he had come to attend his former classmates’ graduation. When I saw him he said to me, “I want you to know that this past year my English teacher assigned our class to write about someone who made a difference in my life. I chose to write about you.”

I was flattered but intrigued. I knew this student for but one year. He was in my class for 40 minutes a day and had many other teachers.

“Why?” I asked. “Why did you write about me?”

The answer he gave has transformed the way I think about education and about life in general, for that matter.

“I wrote about you because you were always having fun when you taught.”

Mind you, the fun he was referencing was not joke-telling or sports-related banter or the playing of games. There were, to be sure, moments of levity in the class, including all of the above. But that was not his intent. He sensed a genuine passion in the class, an excitement in my instruction as well as a desire to engage the students in the lessons and experiences of the subjects under discussion. To him, I wasn’t simply teaching. I was also having “fun.” And he was right.

Parents can instill energy and positivity by demonstrating genuine interest and passion about the children’s work. Let them know how important their learning is and try to get “into it” wherever possible. Children respond positively to the excitement they see expressed by the adults that they respect.

Explain the benefits. Take the time to help children see the value in what they are learning. If the material falls within general studies, let them know what they will be able to do with their learning in terms of employment or as informed citizens. Commandments as well as general philosophy also must be presented in the right context. Sure, our children need to know that we learn because it is the way to understand and practice God's Word. But they should also be told what they stand to gain, such as reward for the actions as well as a deep sense of personal fulfillment. This will help motivate them to learn and do more.

Paint a futuristic picture. According to a midrash (Rus Rabbah 5:6), had Reuben, Aaron, and Boaz known their actions would be recorded in the Torah, they would have done even more than they did. Yafeh Anaf suggests this teaches us these three great personalities failed to grasp that their behavior would be recorded in the Torah as exemplary examples for later generations. Had they realized this, they would have elevated their already stellar behavior to an even higher level.

As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to paint a picture of the future – to let our children see the great possibilities of success and happiness that await them in the short and long term. They need to understand that such things do not happen on their own but are the product of hard work, resilience, commitment, and other qualities.

Pray. We all want for our children to be happy and successful. Certainly we don’t want them to experience a poor year, particularly with all the money we pay in tuition. Pray regularly that they succeed.

Of course, the above list represents but a handful of suggestions that can help to ensure a successful year from beginning to end. May all of our tefillos be answered and may we shep much nachas from our children throughout the most amazing and successful year that is now upon us.

How will they evaluate you? It's largely in your hands! SmartBlog on Leadership 8.27.2014

Recently I had the pleasure of going on a fishing trip on Lake Michigan with three of my sons. This was our first such fishing charter, and it turned out to be a great experience all around.

Clearly, one of the most common words on a shipping boat is “catch,” as in the fish that is brought in during the trip. When used in the workplace, the term can be used to reference a great new resource, such as a new hire or tool that has the potential of adding value to the workforce and its efforts. Proactive managers and employers can also catch their workers doing something right and praise such conduct as a form of reinforcement.

On the negative side, the term “catch” can refer to the way in which employees are oftentimes evaluated, as in being caught off-guard with critiques (or worse) that stem from unstated or unclear expectations. For many leaders, this can come from multiple sources and stakeholders, each of which has its own conception of what needs to be done and how the job is actually being fulfilled.

How can leaders ensure the formation of a proper set of expectations — and one that focuses them on a clear set of goals and ensures a fair assessment of their work?

First, leaders need to be clear on who is doing the assessing. This may be a direct supervisor, the board of directors, a board subcommittee or another party. Whoever it is, make sure to meet with them early on to discuss the evaluation process.

In that discussion, a number of areas need to be covered. These include: frequency of assessment, the assessment tool and whether there will be a particular set of priorities that will take precedence and carry disproportionate value.

  • Frequency: Naturally, frequent feedback is preferable. This gives leaders the opportunity to make adjustments as needed, well before things go sideways in a serious way. It also allows for modifications of goals if that is required. While each situation may dictate its own feedback frequency, there is no question that a once-annual review is not sufficient, especially for millennial workers who expect regular feedback.
  • The tool makes all the difference: What evaluative tool will you be using? Does it offer clear, objective descriptors of job performance and ask for supportive evidence or does it leave things open for subjective interpretation? The clearer and more detailed, the better.
  • Identify the focus: This point cannot be overstated. It is near-impossible for leaders to excel at everything, especially if there is an expectation for them to work on specific personal or organizational goals. Those who are doing the assessing need to “get” the fact that they have to be willing to let certain things go if there is to be a fair and accurate process. As part of this effort make sure that the evaluation tool reflects this by weighting those criteria that matter most, rather than assigning equal value to all professional competencies.
  • And keep it there: It can be challenging for assessors to remain disciplined in their views when constituents are clamoring for various other gains on complaining about “non-core” areas. It can be even harder for the assessee to keep the group focused on the agreed-to goals. Hopefully, enough equity and trust can be built between parties to allow for redirection to occur without it being taken personally or compromising the final outcome.

These ideas express a large degree of proactivity, in terms of setting a clear plan from the outset and keeping the focus where it belongs. A leader would also be well advised to continue to share positive news and achievements with his assessor(s) in a steady but not obnoxious manner. If there is doubt about how best to proactively share progress, be sure to discuss the desired frequency and delivery method of such information.

Is this the job you signed up for? SmartBlog on Leadership 8.15.2014

My first leadership post was the most unusual and most unexpected management position that I ever held. When I was a high school senior, a friend of mine whose father ran a kosher-certification agency asked me if I could provide supervision in a kosher restaurant on Saturday nights.

I didn’t live too far from the place and wanted to earn some extra cash, so I agreed. The position, I was told, included oversight in the kitchen, and, because I did not have to be in the kitchen for more than a few moments at a time (as all of the ingredients were kosher), manning the cash register.

My first night on the job was going pretty smoothly. It took me a short while to learn the inner workings of the establishment’s kitchen and how to operate the register. Not bad, I thought, for $10 an hour. But then, one of the waiters told me that I had a phone call.

“Is this the manager?” asked the woman on the line. “Manager?” I thought. I hesitated, thinking that the waiter had called the wrong person to the phone. I asked her to hold and went back to the waiter. He explained to me that every kosher supervisor who works in that restaurant is also the manager, so yes; I was the right one to answer. I picked the phone back up. The woman, by now confused and a bit annoyed, asked incredulously, “Are you sure that you’re the manager?” With the confidence of a censored child, I meekly replied to the affirmative. Let’s just say that I’ve had better leadership moments than that one.

Most leaders assume their positions with a better understanding of their job responsibilities than I did. But I have found that quite a few leaders (including myself when I became a head of school) only know the general parameters of what they need to do because they received little mentoring, a vague job description, competing sets of marching orders, or a combination thereof. Additionally, so many responsibilities seem to evolve over time or appear mysteriously on the leader’s lap, oftentimes because there is no one else to do these tasks.

What can leaders do to ensure that their job turns out to be the one that they signed up for rather than the occupation that it evolves into?

  • Review the job description thoroughly before applying. In most cases, detailed job descriptions are available to potential applicants. Review the core job expectations and ask yourself if you are comfortable with everything that is listed. If not, make a note to explore those areas in particular during an interview to see if the job is really for you.
  • Fill in the blanks. As you review the description, try to keep in mind the other leadership tasks that are not included. For example, a chief operations officer listing may include a range of responsibilities but make no mention of fundraising, public relations and the like. Do your homework to determine if these tasks are handled by others or if this will also fall under your jurisdiction.
  • Gauge flexibility options. Will this position offer fiscal and staffing flexibility in the event of change, such as shifting market trends, new technologies or other unforeseen demands? This is important to ensure that the leader does not get saddled with unwanted and “misplaced” tasks.
  • Make it contractual. When the contract arrives, make sure that it clearly details what you are responsible to achieve. This will help you focus your energies and also allow for clearer feedback as well as an easier, more accurate evaluation process. It also will cover you in case expectations change over time without your input or consent.

Oftentimes, leaders fail to go through this process, either because they are not aware of its benefits or they fear that too much insistence will jeopardize their candidacy. While this is understandable, it is the responsibility of a job seeker to do his due diligence and determine whether the new possibility really offer a good fit. If he fails to do so, he may get saddled with tasks that are onerous, unrealistic and/or not what he signed up for.