One of the first oxymorons in the entire Torah comes when Adam is given his wife and she is described as being an ezer k'negdo, literally a helper who is opposite him. While the various commentaries wrestle over how to reconcile the notion someone who is both an ally and an opponent, I think that I have now found the perfect definition - Critical Friend.
I came to this revelation over the past three days as I was privileged to attend a Critical Friends Retreat sponsored by the Institute for University-School Partnership of Yeshiva University. Fourteen Yeshiva day school and high school administrators from around the country were brought together to spend several days thinking together, strategizing together, and challenging each other to broaden their perspectives in terms of how they handle the many difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching situations that school administrators inevitably have to deal with.
While I am still mentally decompressing from the retreat, a number of takeaways that I believe are important for both administrators as well as their constituents to be aware of:
1) Leadership is a lonely job. YU President Richard Joel addresses the group on the final morning and stressed exactly this point. The higher up one is in an organization, the fewer people there are in the organization who truly understand the pressures and conflicts that he or she is facing. Usually, a leader makes a decision and is immediately and simultaneously lauded and condemned for his brilliance/stupidity. While one can gradually steel themselves to handle the blowback, it is crucial to try to cultivate professional relationships with others who can stand in your shoes.
2) One notable aspect of the retreat was that we did not try to solve each others' problems. In each of the seven main sessions, one person presented a case study of a situation that they were facing, and we followed a strict protocol (taken from the website of the National School Reform Faculty) which aimed at clarifying and probing into the issue, without offering any concrete advice. The goal of all of this was to encourage the presenter in each session to consider his issue in a broader context and perhaps from new angles. Just as we are often more concerned with how our students arrived at the answer than we are with whether or not they got it right, so too here was our focus on the process. To a man (and woman), each of us felt that this process was highly beneficial in forcing us to pause, reflect, and provide thoughtful input.
3) As IUSP Director Scott Goldberg noted, one goal of this and similar retreats is to try to create a field of Jewish educational leadership. As Jewish schools are outside the reach of government oversight and compulsory national standards, there is not always a need for administrators to collaborate with their peers in other schools, even if those schools are in the same community. However, there is obviously much to be gained from creating such networks, and while social networking is wonderful, personal contact forms a much stronger basis for meaningful professional relationships.
4) I hope that some day school parents are reading this post, if only to appreciate what is going on in the world of Jewish education. With so much focus on tuition and technology, parents often do not hear about the many ways in which the educators who service their children are committing themselves to grow personally and professionally. While I obviously had to be "out of the building" for a day and a half of school in order to be a part of this retreat, the benefits that accrue as a result of my participation should be far more valuable.