It’s been exactly a month since I returned from a weeklong institute at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. I completed a course, LEV: Leadership an Evolving Vision, with 130 educators from around the world. We were a diverse group from 15 countries and 20 U.S. states. It was an intensive and immersive learning experience. The goals of the institute were fourfold: To examine leadership styles and organizational practices that enhance performance and enable sustainable change; to learn specific strategies for fostering a positive school culture, valuing diversity and communicating effectively; to learn techniques for encouraging personal growth; and to develop skills for managing entrepreneurially. Through plenary sessions with professors, facilitated group discussions and personal reflection, I emerged with a new vision for how to grow our enrollment and how to continue to inspire my talented faculty who believe so deeply in our mission.

Not only did I have a Harvard discussion group with educators from Brazil, New Zealand, Mexico, Western Australia, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee, but I also participated in an evening cohort just for Jewish day school leaders from Canada, England and the United States. This second cohort was sponsored through the incredible generosity of the Avi Chai Foundation. How lucky am I to have 24 new colleagues and friends whom I can connect with and call upon for support and guidance? My two WhatsApp groups fostered camaraderie during the program and have continued to unite us afterward as questions of practice and suggestions have been free-flowing ever since. It was an amazing experience that has changed me, not just as an educator, but as a person as well. I am eager to begin the school year and share my learning and plans with my faculty and our students.  

The program began at noon on a Sunday afternoon and ended the following Saturday at noon. I was feeling apprehensive about missing an entire week of summer planning. Looking back, I now realize that I was mired in the day-to-day details of running a school, rather than the 30,000-feet inspirational thinking of leading a school. The only way to close that gap was through introspection. Many of the lectures had a profound impact on me, and I literally felt the day-to-day concerns dissipate as I started to ponder questions like, why are some leaders successful and others aren’t? What are my strengths and weaknesses as a leader? What is my story and do others know why I am here? What is the culture at my school? What are the factors that have contributed to how people understand, articulate and actualize our culture and mission?

I was forced to look at the “big rocks” that stand in my way of change and how I can address them. These are not easy questions to face. Without the support of my cohort mates, I wouldn’t have been able to tackle them. It is not by chance that Harvard took us to Project Adventure in Beverly on the second day of the institute. Where else would you bring people from around the world who don’t know each other to start the process of establishing trust so the hard work can come days later in our discussion groups? At Project Adventure, we explored, experimented and challenged ourselves and each other. Many of us literally scaled new heights as we found ourselves 30 feet in the air crossing a narrow metal cable while connected to our belay team below. This belay metaphor was one we held on to throughout the week and that each of us will bring back to help achieve balance. We asked the question, who is on your belay team at school and at home? Have you told these people how much you need them and how grateful you are for their support? Big questions to ponder with people I had only known for less than 24 hours! By the end of the week, it was like we had known each other for years. The camaraderie developed was unexpected and truly a blessing. One of my Avi Chai cohort colleagues and friends explained to the entire Harvard group at our Saturday afternoon closing session that lev is the Hebrew word for “heart.” This LEV institute touched all of ours.

I sit at the midpoint of the experience. A month ago, LEV was beginning and a month from now the school year starts. In describing this experience, another of my new colleagues and friends shared: “Gifts come in all shapes and sizes; some we tear off the packaging hastily and others take a while to unwrap. I am still slowly unwrapping an incredible gift.” I am returning invigorated, excited to teach others and to help my school be the best it can be for my students. I won’t be running our school; I will be leading it. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the Harvard LEV program; it would not have happened without the Avi Chai Foundation. My experience will make all the difference for the students, faculty and families at EHS.

Amy Gold is head of school at Epstein Hillel School.

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