March 2019: School Culture

Successful Me: School Culture by Design

RABBI MEIR COHEN

To me, culture is an image. It is a succinct idea. It is, as an example, my friend’s proud description of her native Colombia’s passion. Passion is the unique quality of her culture. Passion infuses every part of Colombian life: frenzied soccer fans, grand festivals, dramatic landscapes, intense romances, colorful and bold clothing, and rich and flavorful food. One shared trait crosses through all these Colombian experiences.
We typically associate culture with countries or a defined group of people, and while the meaning of culture doesn’t change in different settings, the construction of a clear and focused culture in a school environment is different. Students hail from a variety of backgrounds and cultural practices in their homes and families. In a Torah school, we certainly share a commonality, but does that mean every Torah school’s culture is the same? That seems unlikely. In fact, I have visited many Orthodox Jewish schools and I can say with confidence that the same culture was not shared by each school.
Colombia’s culture expresses itself in a vast array of behaviors based on the shared trait of passion. A school’s cultural foundation also emerges from shared traits that form the basis of all outcomes. I have seen examples of Orthodox Jewish schools whose main focus is one or more of these values: high level of Torah learning, chesed or community service, collaborative learning, Zionism, Ivy-league bound students, individualized education, unity through ruach, strong athletics, professional growth, or living with middos. In each case, the underlying value of the school dictates the shared experiences of students, faculty, staff, and parents. Although each of these schools define themselves as an Orthodox Jewish Day School, the cultural experience varies greatly among them due to the diverse foci.
School leaders are handed an amazing opportunity because a school’s culture can be defined and shaped. It is not dependent on a country’s history, economy, geography or people. It is dependent on the vision of the school. A school leader can consider all the stakeholders and define a culture that brings everyone together for that shared, underlying value which will dictate the school’s cultural expressions. I had the privilege to help shape the culture of Soille Hebrew Day School in San Diego.
Foundations of Culture at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School
Soille Hebrew Day School educates students whose families come from several different countries and varied levels of Torah observance. A connecting trait needed to be established in order to create a community feel and shared culture within the school. In order to affect the student experience through a cultural change, the administration, faculty, and staff needed to be invested in the execution. I invited a diverse group of school stakeholders to work together on developing a concept we could all stand behind. After much research and collaboration, student leadership emerged as a goal we all wanted to pursue.
Leadership as part of a school culture encompasses students taking charge of their school experiences. What does this look like? Well, students are not entertained; they invent ways to entertain others. Students search for opportunities to get involved, express their talents, and contribute to school life. In a school with Torah as its backbone, they find personal connections to the Torah they study. Students develop their voice, deepen their understanding of who they are as an individual, and discover how they fit into the local, worldwide, historical, and future Jewish community. Students lead their lives with confidence, commitment, and connection.
The building blocks of a student leadership culture begin with character education. Moshe Rabeinu teaches us the value of middos as the backbone of leadership. He was not known for his ability to convince others to follow him. Multiple times in the Yetzias Mitzrayim story and in the desert, Bnei Yisroel complain to Moshe, and he turns to Hashem for help instead of using his skills of persuasion to please their hearts (Shemos 5; 21-22 and 17: 3-4). In fact, B’nei Yisroel only believed in his message following the death of the Mitzrim when the waters of the Yam Suf closed in while the Jews were safely ashore (Shemos 14:31). Nor was he known for his great oration skills; he had a stutter (Shemos 4:10). Moshe’s appointment as a leader comes very soon after he kills an Egyptian for mistreating a Jew and saves Yisro’s daughters from other shepherds (Shemos 2:12 and 17). Hashem chose him to lead due to his empathy for others and his commitment to take risks to do the right thing.
As a K-8 school, we understood that teaching these middos beginning from the earliest age is the key to creating a culture of leadership. We also understood that the core values taught in kindergarten needed to be retaught, practiced, explored, reviewed, and deepened throughout the students’ K-8 career. It would not be enough to teach a middah a month and hope the child remembered its importance during leadership opportunities. These middos would have to be infused in each child’s being as part of who they are and how they function. We needed to design a program that would drive the cultural construction.
After deciding on leadership as a goal, a team of representative teachers and administrators collaborated in writing a middos and leadership program that spiraled its core values throughout the school from kindergarten through 8th grade. Named Successful Me, this program included three main concentrations for every student to master:

  1. Appreciating that which is within and around us
  2. Managing ourselves
  3. Interacting with others

The first category teaches students how to best relate to Hashem in their lives and gives them the ability to find happiness through what they have instead of always pining for more. It helps students slow down, look around, and take in the world they live in. The second category trains students how to achieve individual success. Success is not dependent on easy acquisition of knowledge or skills taught in school. True, individual achievement comes from tackling life with responsibility, enthusiasm, and resilience. The final category guides students on how to value and include each other in their success. We live in communities, and each person is a valued contributor. Students learn how to treat each other with kindness and respect and how to work collaboratively. Students become leaders as they practice and master these building blocks of leadership.
Leadership as a Culture
Leadership emanating from Successful Me became a pervasive piece of Soille Hebrew Day School’s culture within a short period of time. Teachers loved the concepts and happily integrated them within the first year. The middos taught were not just part of a curriculum; they were our essence. Students at all age levels developed their leadership skills through classroom and school activities and assignments in both Judaic and general studies classes. As part of the third-grade report on an American Hero, students analyzed which leadership trait their hero possessed and how it was helpful in their success. As a review of the Parshios in Bereishis, first graders built a diorama focused on the leadership traits our forefathers and foremothers demonstrated throughout our history. School administrators, faculty, and staff incorporated these traits for themselves as shown by our positive attitudes, the way we fulfilled our responsibilities, and how we worked together. We were living examples of the leadership we expected from our students.
The school spoke the language of Successful Me. When discussing a playground tiff, teachers asked about the kindness or respect students gave each other. When going over an assignment, students spoke about their personal responsibilities towards completing it. We held parent educational sessions at school and at families’ homes, so these character traits stretched beyond the school walls and bells. We adorned the building with Successful Me posters and student examples of leadership traits in action. Whenever we ran a school-wide program to celebrate days like Rosh Hashanah or Lag B’Omer, we turned to the middle school students to create and implement a school experience for all ages. Leadership became the defining, shining pillar of our school’s culture.
Four years after Successful Me began, our accreditation renewal time arrived. As a new, required part of the process, The California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) asked each school to submit a ten-picture slideshow depicting its culture. Given what we had achieved in shaping the school’s culture, this was a delightful task. We just needed to show ten ways in which leadership shines through the school experience. We found it displayed in the friendships children created, the Torah students learned, the Jewish holidays children celebrated, the milestones classes achieved, projects students presented, and the collaboration among faculty in professional development opportunities. Leadership was everywhere.
Looking Ahead
At the publication of this article, seven years have passed since we began the process of intentional, cultural change in San Diego. Student leadership at Soille is stronger than ever, but I have moved on to a Headship in a different, Torah-based school across the country. I am now contemplating what shared trait will define the culture of Torah Day School of Atlanta three years from now? I have seen firsthand the benefits of creating a culture. It is certainly an exciting time to think through and implement a unifying force within this school community.
In closing, I urge all school leaders and educators to think about their own school culture. Is it purposefully created around a shared value or is it happenstance based on people’s actions? Is that shared value (planned or not) creating the experiences you desire for students? If not, what do you want your school culture to look like? These thoughts will lead the way to developing the culture your school will thrive with. 

Rabbi Meir Cohen is the Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He has been a senior administrator for 15 years leading school initiatives affecting elementary, middle, and high school aged children. Rabbi Cohen welcomes your thoughts and questions at rabbicohen@gmail.com.