10 Lessons Learned by a New Head of School
February 04, 2019
I naively hoped my first year of headship, at de Toledo High School, a Jewish community school in West Hills, California, would be free of issue or controversy. But less than 2 months after my first day, in October 2018, our community was shaken with back-to-back-to-back tragedies.
About 2,500 miles away from our campus, in Pittsburgh, a gunman walked into Saturday morning Shabbat services and brutally murdered 11 people whose only commonality was that they were, like us, Jewish. Ten days later and fewer than 20 miles away, a gunman rampaged through a popular local hangout, the Borderline Bar & Grill, and shot 12 people dead with no apparent motive. And less than 24 hours after that, the massive Woolsey and Hill fires broke out in our backyard, and about 50 percent of our school families were forced to evacuate for a week or more.
I have started to reflect, identifying the lessons that I quickly learned during these tumultuous first days as head of school. I would have learned these lessons at some point, but they came swiftly and powerfully. They all stem from the same Judaic source: Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh baZeh, meaning all Jews, or the people of Israel, are responsible for one another.
Lesson 1: Be vulnerable and take action.
There’s no playbook on how to deal with acute traumas to your community. We needed to follow the wisdom of Ezra 10:4: “Be strong and do it.” Responses and solutions were needed immediately. With each approach, which required a unique response, we sent the message to our community that we were with them, we cared, and we could empathize with them. Had we tried to be “right” or “perfect” with each and every decision, we would have been paralyzed instead of energized.
Lesson 2: Do not be reactive.
Following the Tree of Life shooting, which shook our community to its core, the immediate reaction was to close school for at least a day and ensure everyone felt safe. However, rather than making that decision on the spot, we had numerous conversations with educators and mental health practitioners over the weekend. They advised that going back to school immediately would create a sense of normalcy. Had we decided not to open school that day, our students would not have been able to have their community around them to help cope with the unexplainable tragedies. While lesson No. 1 is important, so is taking a breath and making a thoughtful decision.
Lesson 3: Trust your educators.
At the start of the year, we had instituted a “quick response team” of educators and student services professionals who were ready, at a moment’s notice, to create educational programs around important or traumatic events. While my reaction was to immediately create an educational program after the second shooting, the team felt that the emotional reservoirs of our community were close to empty after all the programs and conversations around the Tree of Life tragedy. The recommendation, which was different than my reaction, was to start the school day as normal. I heeded their advice, and it was exactly what our community needed at that moment. Instead, during the day, the educators created safe spaces for open discussion, grieving, comfort, and support.
Lesson 4: Turn the focus off of you, but remember that all eyes are on you.
In moments of crisis and trauma, leadership is not about the leader. It has to be about “us.” The job of leader is to empower those around them and to create the structure to allow for a unified and thoughtful approach. When I left my office, even following difficult or emotional phone calls about the impact the fire was having on friends, family, or colleagues, I needed to have a smile on my face and give the perception that everything was OK.
Lesson 5: Collaboration is key.
As Proverbs 11:14 says: ”Without strategy the people fall, but with many counselors there is victory.” Reach out to your leadership team. Their ideas and insights should be different than yours. Allow all these ideas, even ones you initially do not agree with, to be aired and vetted. Through this approach, you will sharpen your response and ensure that other perspectives are considered and included. This approach is important for the short term, but it also helps to build leadership capabilities within your teams.
Lesson 6: Different constituencies need different messages.
Students looked at the multiple tragedies differently than their parents. Parents, faculty members, and our board had a different perspective. It is important to ensure that each constituent’s needs are addressed. Have allies in each group read your messaging, and stay in constant communication with the school community.
Lesson 7: There’s no such thing as overcommunicating.
In Exodus 32:1, the people of Israel decided to make a golden calf because Moses left them in the dark; they did not know what was happening or what Moses was doing. When the Tree of Life shooting happened, two separate emails were necessary; during the fires, there was a daily email for six days. Your constituencies will be looking to you to inform, guide, and reassure them. Without frequent and helpful communication, the community will create their own narratives to fit the limited facts they have. Do not delay communication with your community nor rely on another organization. Also, think about the mode of communication. In some situations, a town-hall style meeting might be required; for many situations, an email is sufficient; at other times, a phone tree or a pre-recorded voice message will be best.
Lesson 8: Think big and think small—at the same time.
These critical situations require multiple ways of thinking simultaneously. What does the community need? How do we help our families or other sister institutions? What immediate needs do we have? Do we need to bring in more maintenance to keep the campus clean and clear of smoke and ash? As we open our doors to other groups, do we need more security? What are the intentional decisions you are making and how might those translate now—and a year from now? Most importantly, how are your responses in line with your mission statement?
Lesson 9: Be present and roll up your sleeves.
In Pirkei Avot 1:15, we learn, “say little and do much.” In the midst of a crisis, those affected cannot think beyond their immediate needs, and at times, are even paralyzed from that process. As leaders and community resources, you have more clarity and perspective, so dive in. Try to anticipate their needs and offer to handle them. In the fires, one of our families lost its house, including a son’s bookbag and books. We grabbed school supplies from the workroom, gave him extra textbooks, and offered the father an office to work from since he did not have access to his business. At the moment, they could not even think to act; we had to be the ones to jump into action.
Lesson 10: Model your values.
In a period of less than 24 hours, a day school was displaced, three temples were evacuated from their facilities, and a camp was looking for a place to meet. When all eyes turned to de Toledo High School to accommodate their needs, it would have been easy to say no or limit the number of organizations who had access to our campus. However, if our mission statement reads that our job is to “raise the next generation of Jewish leaders,” how could we stay true to that mission and say no to our community? This was truly the time to model “loving our neighbor as we would ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18). Our board, administration, students, and parents agreed: The overwhelming answer to every request was “yes, what do you need?” This was more than a response to the needs of our community, this was an educational and leadership moment for our students to stand up and make a difference, even at the expenses of their own time and comfort.
For me, the emotions, lack of sleep, the time away from family, and the need to keep the school running as smoothly as possible all took a toll. However, the lessons have been invaluable. While there may be no playbook, the real-world lessons can help guide me the next time unforeseen events occur.
It is now time for some sleep!
Mark Shpall is head of de Toledo High School in West Hills, California. He previously held faculty and administrative positions at de Toledo and is a graduate of The Webb Schools (CA).