Jody Passanisi leads the middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School
Jody Passanisi leads the middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School

At a Harvard seminar for principals, I looked inward

As the director of middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, I recently took part in a weeklong seminar called “Improving Schools: the Art of Leadership,” held in June at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Principals’ Center. I was joined by school leaders not only from the U.S. but also from Jordan, Mexico, Australia, Canada and the Palestinian territories.

It was awe-inspiring to experience everyone’s wisdom, and to hear about the ways each person managed their different schools and faculty — and how they worked for the education of children.

Each person brought their own stories, the things they hold dear, their culture, politics, geography and religion. And though most of us are in leadership positions, the respect and honor for the teaching profession was always palpable.

I lost count how many times someone offhandedly mentioned how similar we all were in both our challenges and our gratitudes, despite our vastly different contexts.

I was sponsored, along with 15 other Jewish educators, by the Avi Chai Foundation, a N.Y.-based foundation committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people.

That made the week even better, because in addition to attending the seminar with 100 others, we 16 were able to have separate sessions in which we could contextualize what we had learned and apply it to our own Jewish day school settings. We were able to consider how we would bring the lessons home and apply them to the unique populations at our schools.

Much of the focus came back to ourselves. It’s an important aspect to ponder, and one that many principals don’t get a chance to examine during their day-to-day work.

What are our roles in both the successes and challenges of our schools? How we can take responsibility for the strategy and way forward? Can we be honest and reflective about what we can do better, and what is our role in shaping school culture?

During the week, we had to bring a situation to our groups that implicated ourselves in both the problem and the solution. Not others, no blaming — just exploring the truth of the matter (with the collective wisdom of the people in the room).

This was sacred work.

And it’s work that can be very difficult, because the implication is that something needs to change. It is easier to look to external factors — to point the finger at society, the “unique” situation at “our school,” trends, norms, or challenges with students or parents or teachers.

But the truth is that those external factors are always there. We have control only over ourselves, and the more honest with ourselves we can be — about who we are, what we do well and what we need support with — the better our schools will be.

Being in a room with 120 principals from around the globe, I felt the power of having these challenges validated, of addressing the feelings that accompany our struggles and of receiving (and offering) support — support that I, for one, didn’t know I needed.

As a leader in a school, there is a valid expectation that your tone sets the tone of the school. I take this seriously, but didn’t realize how much I needed colleagues from other schools to help counter that pressure.

At one point, I had a conversation with a principal from an East Coast Orthodox school. We bonded mainly over two things: challenges with student accountability and wanting to turn discipline into educative experiences. We agreed on the need to work on the clarity of our messages, so that we can lead with vision.

The squirmy work of looking at yourself, your job, your motivations, what you do well and what you don’t, can be challenging. The program was a transformative experience, by design. Now it’s time to take what we learned to the next level.

My hope is that I am better able to maintain this powerful, reflective work during the upcoming school year and beyond.

The next generation is more important than anything else. And our inner selves are in the service of that truth.

Jody Passanisi

Jody Passanisi is the director of the middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.