By: Fayge Safran Novogroder and Rochelle Moche
Navigating relationships can be complicated at times, but never more so than when faculty members change roles within a school. Suddenly, relationships shift, and all those involved need to readjust. This phenomenon is perhaps particularly complex (and potentially fraught) in Jewish day school settings, where professional and personal lives are often intertwined.
At the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) of New Teacher Center (NTC), for over 20 years we have worked closely with teachers as they transition into new leadership roles—mentor, department chair, division head or principal—and we have helped them navigate both the practical and emotional implications of the transition. In this article, we will give some language to the process of relationship change for emerging school leaders, identify common pitfalls and offer ideas on how to navigate these changes successfully.
HOW DO CHANGING LEADERSHIP ROLES AFFECT RELATIONSHIPS?
A new leadership role requires changes in behavior, priorities and mindsets. The impact of these changes is not only on the individual but on the people and the systems around them. Following are some of the changes, and challenges, new leaders face and the ways those changes can impact relationships. Many of these are relevant to all types of leadership roles, while others are particular to administrators.
ACQUIRING NEW SKILLS
Most new roles require learning new skills. Becoming a mentor requires developing new skills such as active listening, mentoring language, classroom observations, delivering effective feedback, and analyzing teacher and student data to inform teaching practice and charting professional growth. Taking on a new administrative role such as department head or principal can require attaining or honing leadership skills such as effective meeting facilitation, supervision, having hard conversations, shaping culture, operations, budgeting, scheduling and time management.
Developing new skills takes time and effort and puts the mentor or administrator in a vulnerable position as they go from being an expert to a novice—and they do so publicly. This can affect feelings of competence and self-worth. Rabbi Sam Pearlson, middle school Judaic studies teacher at SAR Academy, shares about becoming a mentor:
The hardest part of transitioning into a mentoring position was confronting my “imposter syndrome.” How could I possibly mentor another teacher when I’m constantly rethinking my own curricula and classroom practices? How can I help someone else navigate the struggles that I am working through in my own classroom?
In fact, emerging school leaders often mention “imposter syndrome” as a challenge.
In the post-Covid world, it can feel like boundaries between teachers, students, parents and administrators have been eliminated. Heightened expectations have been made in all directions around time, availability and the amount of work to be done. Teachers and administrators must establish and assert boundaries to be able to stay focused, but doing so may upset some relationships. Educators benefit from setting boundaries regarding being approached by parents when outside of the school building as well as evening and weekend communications. Students and parents who might have enjoyed unlimited access to their teachers during the pandemic may be upset and frustrated by the reassertion of limits on availability.
In addition to negotiating pandemic-era patterns, new mentors and administrators need other types of boundaries as well. Mentors have to set boundaries with their administrators in maintaining their mentee’s confidentiality. New administrators may have to set boundaries with friends within and outside of school who want “the inside scoop.” Setting boundaries can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness for administrators, who feel they cannot fully share with former peers, current supervisees, upper level administrators, parents and friends in the wider community. Setting boundaries is crucial for the mental health and productivity of emerging school leaders, though the impact on relationships may add stress.
Moving from a peer relationship to one involving supervision certainly impacts that relationship. This change doesn’t necessarily have to negatively impact the relationship, but adding a feedback or supervisory element will inevitably change it. For teachers who become mentors or coaches to junior teachers, there is a power dynamic involved with classroom observations. Not everyone likes being watched while they do their job—fearing judgment and not wanting to show weakness—and having a peer observe one’s work in action may make a teacher feel uncomfortable or vulnerable.
Those with new evaluative responsibilities may find themselves having to give critical feedback to friends, former co-teachers or even their own former teachers. Aliza Strassman, director of student services at Ben Porat Yosef and incoming director of Sinai at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, shares:
One of the most challenging aspects of changing roles within the school (I had been a teacher there for seven years before becoming an administrator) was navigating new relationships. For me, this included both supervising former peers and finding my voice and place within the administrative team.
Giving honest feedback, as well as receiving it, can be one of the hardest tasks for new school leaders, and they may hesitate to do so for fear of damaging collegial relationships and personal friendships. Yet providing clear feedback is essential to creating a healthy work environment.
In making the change to a new position, sometimes emerging leaders fall into mindset traps that can impact relationships. We encourage emerging leaders to be vigilant about avoiding these pitfalls.
DESIRE TO BE LIKED
This is especially true for new administrators, but is also relevant for mentors. Those in new leadership positions often don’t want to do anything to change the status quo or be considered “the bad guy.” For instance, mentors may hesitate to fully embrace their role for fear of being perceived as judgmental or critical to a peer. When it comes to administrators, we remind the JNTP Administrator Support Program participants that “administration is not a popularity contest.” Leaders often need to make hard decisions and have hard conversations. Falling into the trap of wanting to be liked means emerging leaders may resist executing crucial parts of their job.
GETTING STUCK IN EMOTIONS
Emerging leaders must avoid getting drawn into others’ emotions. For mentors of beginning teachers, this can be particularly challenging, as the first 6-12 months might be spent largely on emotional support as new teachers struggle to find their “sea legs.” Mentors should help guide new teachers through their feelings of being overwhelmed and not become entangled with them. Both mentors and new teachers benefit from maintaining focus on setting and achieving goals and recognizing the incremental growth that is happening.
POWER VS. AUTHORITY
New administrators are chosen for their positions based on expertise, skills and other leadership qualities. In their new roles, they are imbued with both power and authority, and learning to find the balance between the two is crucial. We define “power” as implementing rules, regulations and accountability, and “authority” as possessing the knowledge, skills and compassion that build credibility and respect.
New, insecure leaders can get caught up in focusing exclusively on such details as lateness to davening or complying with dress code, trying to control others’ behavior in order to assert their power. This can create tension in a school and lead to breakdowns in relationships with students, faculty and parents. On the other hand, without accountability, a school becomes a free-for-all, which can negatively impact relationships inside and outside of the building. The key to good leadership is finding a balance between implementing accountability and leading through authority and compassion.
HAVING TO DO IT ALL
New administrators often fall into this trap. They want to show that they are worthy of their promotion, so they try to do all the tasks that fall under their purview. The reality is that nobody can do it “all” successfully, and relationships may suffer when an administrator can’t accomplish what they need to. An administrator may feel so overwhelmed by administrative tasks that they don’t make time to observe classrooms and give feedback. They may never leave their office to walk around the building and talk to students and teachers. Administrators must learn how to balance their administrative and educational leadership responsibilities.
During a live podcast at the 2023 Prizmah conference, Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston presented how their organizational restructuring drove institutional alignment and change. One of their key changes was moving to a distributed leadership model, where faculty from across the school were empowered to take on certain administrative tasks. As Dr. Jonah Hassenfeld, Schechter Boston’s director of learning and teaching, explains,
When you look at a principal who has 25 direct reports, there’s just no way that person can be providing the kind of coaching and mentorship and supervision [that is necessary] and scheduling the fire drill and making sure the buses are there on time and figuring out what happens when the lunch tables aren’t set up.
Balancing administrative and educational leadership tasks is crucial for the relationships in the building and within the wider school community.
HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATE CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS: BUILD TRUST
Given these challenges and potential pitfalls, what can people taking on new roles in schools do to protect and strengthen their relationships as they transition into new roles? The key is building trust. As Charlotte Danielson writes in Talk about Teaching, “The first, and some would argue the most important, characteristic of a school making progress toward improved student learning is that the leader has established an atmosphere of trust: trust among teachers and between teachers and administrators.”
Trust can be built in a number of ways. It starts with truly knowing staff, as professionals and as human beings. This means showing interest in people’s goals, aspirations and concerns as teachers. It also means learning about who they are outside of school: Do they have a family? Where did they grow up? What are their hobbies and passions?
One seasoned mentor shares that she begins every first mentoring session with the open-ended question “Tell me about yourself,” and similarly shares important information about herself so there is a basis for personal “knowing” and relationship. Another important tool mentors and administrators can use to build trust are one-on-one meetings, which give insight into a teacher’s practice—what’s working, what are the challenges, what might some of your next steps be—and provides an opportunity to ask, “How can I support you?”
Trust is also built through giving feedback that is honest and authentic. As Kim Scott indicates in her book Radical Candor: Clear is kind. Teachers know when an administrator is avoiding a challenge, and that erodes trust and credibility, and ultimately, the relationship itself.
Maintaining confidentiality is another important factor in building trust. Nothing erodes trust faster than divulging confidential information. Likewise, treating everyone fairly and equitably is critical for mentors and administrators. Everyone wants to feel respected and heard.
Building trust and investing in relationships will help those taking on new leadership roles do their jobs better. An administrator from Baltimore shares, “I did find myself focusing very hard on developing and maintaining strong relationships as a way to be as effective as possible.” And having strong relationships is the key to being able to provide effective feedback. In response to a question about how the move from teacher to evaluative team leader affected relationships at Schechter Boston, Rebecca Lurie, head of school, said, “If Jonah and I are talking every day about his work, and I care about him and I care about his work, then the one thing I have to tell him that’s [critical] feedback, he can hear, because there’s so much good.”
Of course, building trust takes time. Mentors need to prove to their mentees that they are 100% advocates for them, that they will put their mentees first, and that they will maintain confidentiality. Administrators need to show that they are able to understand their teachers’ needs, that they are sending the message to their faculty that “I am here for you.” Trust leads to good relationships, and good relationships form the basis of a vibrant school environment.
Bracha Rutner, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central), offers the following suggestions for how new mentors and new administrators can navigate the changing nature of relationships, both within and outside of school: “Lots of curiosity and open-mindedness. Listening and knowing how to have difficult conversations. And get a coach.”
For new school leaders, being part of an external cohort of peers or having a coach can provide support and guidance in navigating changing relationships. It serves as a safe space where a mentor or administrator can be vulnerable, which then allows for their own true growth.
Ultimately, relationships are at the core of every human system, including Jewish day schools. Creating and maintaining strong, trusting relationships will maximize the potential of Jewish day schools to create vibrant communities of learning and growth.