Professionalism in Jewish Educational Leadership – A Working Definition

    RABBI AVROHOM S. MOLLER

The expectation of professionalism for today’s educators is growing daily. Our communities are blessed with parents and families who live and work in professional environments and they expect the schools that are preparing their children for life to be the same. Professionalism is a concept which some may see as abstract and intangible. Some may even argue that it is subjective, in the eye of the beholder. Conceivably, we could even have a situation where there are very different perspectives about what the proper course of action is from a professional conduct standpoint. As teachers, principals and heads of schools, we hope that we are seen as being professional about the way we ply our trade. With this essay, I hope to bring some more clarity to the concept and, most importantly, to make some points that Jewish school educators can operationalize while they engage in the chinuch of Jewish children.
Professionalism is the set of behaviors professionals use in the course of pursuing their work that demonstrates that they are, in fact, a professional. To rephrase that statement, it is not sufficient to be employed in a profession or to be knowledgeable and proficient; one must also conduct himself or herself in a way that makes it clear that he or she is indeed professional. If one does not, they risk the perception that they are not competent or that they are really not engaged in a profession; they merely have a job.
Proficiency: Professionalism is the professional’s display of respect for their vocation and is expressed in several ways. The first is knowledge and proficiency. An educator, or any other professional, who feels that they have an important role to play will illustrate that through learning all they can about their trade. They will keep themselves up to date by reading professional literature about their practice, attend trainings, and maintain a high level of curiosity about their vocation. They will display this curiosity by sharing their excitement and their conceptual thinking with others. They will use a systematic approach to problem solving based on this knowledge. Studying our profession is probably the most important way we can display respect for what we do.
There are external ways to show respect to our profession. Appropriate dress, timeliness, and responsiveness to our constituents is very important. We all have a hard time respecting an individual who may know what he/she is doing but is sloppy or unkempt in dress or in manner. This is also true for people who “drop the ball,” have all sorts of excuses for not acting responsibly, or show up late or unprepared all of time. Aside from being rude, these behaviors erode the luster of professionalism mainly because they communicate a disrespect of the practice by the practitioner. These deficiencies are symptomatic of a lack of a deep appreciation for what we do and how it is practiced. These externalities are the requisite derech eretz, and when they’re missing it shapes the observer’s opinion of who we are.
Preparedness: The next aspect of professionalism, preparedness, is an outgrowth of being curious and always in learning mode about what we do. If we only study an issue when it is upon us, then we will most likely do a poor job in resolving it. As an example, if your school just got an allocation to implement a bussing program and you haven’t examined the various administrative challenges of having a school bussing program (bus safety instruction, general and cultural training of the drivers, driver interactions with kids, legal liabilities and insurance, routing, fee collection, monitoring, live information for parents, protocols for mishaps, bullying investigation, etc.) you are going to be in for a difficult implementation and some embarrassing situations where you will be accused of being unprofessional and incompetent. When one studies these challenges in the abstract, one will avoid the pitfall of being drawn in to the whirlwind of strained emotions, conflicting personalities and wants, etc. We can remain clear minded and effective even when things are difficult. We all hope that the ER doctor won’t break down when faced with the medical needs of victims of a bad car accident. Instead, we would expect him to be calm, to have a plan and to be ready to carry it out quickly. Preparedness is also expressed in smaller ways by anticipating next moves and staging resources properly. All of these demonstrate that one is taking one’s profession seriously and planning ahead to do the best job one can.
Communication: Another aspect of professionalism is demonstrated through proper and clear communication. People believe that when we are good at what we do, we can explain what needs to be done clearly and succinctly. If we are long-winded and stuffy or we present our thoughts in a convoluted way, it is hard for people to have confidence in our professional abilities. Have you ever gone to a parent orientation or a meeting with an administrator where you struggled to follow what the person was trying to say? Usually you will have the following thought: “If he cannot describe a simple classroom assignment clearly, how can my child learn far more complicated ideas from this person?”
One of my early teaching experiences was when I sent home my first Shabbos sheet and one of the fathers in the class who was a physician sent it back marked up with all of my spelling and grammar mistakes. You better believe that it never happened again! In all fairness, some very bright people are poor communicators both orally and in writing. The counterpoint is that while they may make good researchers or scholars, they are not the people who inspire others to follow their ideas and practical solutions.
Leadership: It is important to remember that the subject of this discussion is specifically in the context of Jewish educational leadership. The characteristics and skills of leadership overlap and complement professionalism. Leaders need to have vision, courage, faith, integrity, humility, loyalty, responsibility, wisdom, flexibility, empathy, and the list goes on. These attributes will all validate the leader’s professionalism. If these traits are not there, then a professional façade won’t do much to create that professional leader. Did you ever consult with a doctor who was arrogant and self-absorbed? It is a very disconcerting and unsatisfactory experience! True leadership characteristics have to be rooted deeply and have to transform a person; otherwise the flaws will surface no matter how well a person practices the externalities.
Demeanor is the most identifiable aspect of professionalism. When a professional is friendly, poised and helpful, it instills the confidence in others that this person can and will use their professional skills to help them. If they get the sense instead that they present a burden or that the professional just wants to get on with his or her life, they will feel disappointed in that person’s ability to help them and will not be open to that person’s suggestions or solutions. This is a part of the communication piece, but it represents the “I am here to serve” attitude that a professional needs to have. Rashi (Bamidbar 27:19) explains that the advice which our teacher Moshe gave to his successor Yehoshua is, “You should know these people are troublesome and stubborn and you must accept that.” This can be really challenging especially when people are upset, accusatory, or hostile. The true professional will not be flustered or lose his composure and will not respond in kind. The wise King Shlomo said, “Injustice will make a wise man foolish and will rob him of his gift of heart” (Koheles 7:7). It is challenging for a person who is faced with an unfair situation to keep it together but if you don’t, you’ve been made a fool.
After School: While it is clear that professionalism speaks to the way professionals conduct themselves while carrying out their responsibilities, it is even true when they are offline and not engaged in their work. We sometimes see people who are very competent at what they do commit an egregious violation of professional conduct, even in a manner that is not related to their field, and they lose their constituents’ respect and sometimes their careers. The sports and political worlds have numerous examples of this. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92b) tells us, “A person should never change away from their prominence.” This idea is based on the behavior of Chanaya, Mishael and Azaryah who maintained their dignified and formal attire even as they were being led to execution in the furnace at Bikas Dura. If we want to be regarded as acting professionally, it has to be whenever we are seen by others, even if it is out of context. That can be a great burden indeed, but it is the reality.
Serving our community, especially in the small community, can be a challenge to our professionalism because it is harder to maintain professional boundaries with our friends and neighbors. If the whole community is in the kosher aisle of the local supermarket on Thursday night, you can be certain that someone will try to accost you there with school business. You need a professional response for those encounters and aspire to be professional (or shop at 6:00am on Tuesday morning).
There is no pride or comfort in running a school “by the seat of our pants” in a chaotic or unprofessional way. When parents interact with the school they want to see professionalism reflected. If a school receives an application and it languishes on an administrator’s desk until six weeks before school opens, the family involved will be disappointed and disenchanted. We want to be successful in influencing students and families and an important prerequisite is that we appear relevant and cognizant of our environment. This can only happen when we present ourselves professionally.
One final thought: don’t obsess over professionalism. You run the risk of missing the destination because of the journey. If you are sincere, work on the underlying character of the good leader and aspire to be professional, you will do very well. 

Avrohom S. Moller, MA Ed, has been a school teacher and administrator for 28 years. He is currently the Superintendent of the Associated Talmud Torahs, Chicago’s central agency for Orthodox Day Schools. He is fascinated by how learning happens and the supports which are necessary for effective learning systems. He can be reached at amoller@att.org.