Yes, I take a tremendous amount of personal pride in having reached this academic achievement. It took me 8 years (6 of them ABD) to successfully defend my Ed.D. dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary – which was accomplished (pending minor revisions) this past Monday. During that time, I helped found one Jewish day school and assumed the headship of a second. When I started, my wife and I were a recently married couple living in an apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When I finished, we were a family of four living in a house in Jacksonville, Florida. But what matter does it make outside of my own world? My parents are kvelling, but am I a better head of school having gone through this experience? Are the schools I have been blessed with the opportunity to run any better off? (And, therefore, would I recommend that other heads of school, principals, etc., pursue doctorates of their own for the purpose of improving their craft?)
I can only blog for myself, but as challenging as the process was, the answer has been an unequivocal, “yes”!
My research questions were how do theories of educational leadership help understand the founding of a new Jewish day school, and how does the head of school’s understanding and implementation of leadership theories impact the founding and growth of a new Jewish day school. You can see that I had the opportunity to make my work the subject of my doctoral research and, therefore, I was not only able to further my own education, but (hopefully) I was able to contribute to the school(s) I was employed to head. Had I chosen a different research topic, perhaps, I would feel differently, but I’m not entirely sure. The discipline of doing doctoral research in education – the books I have read, the methodology I have mastered, the academic vernacular I have had to learn to write in, the necessity to defend my work to tenured professors of education – all of this has undoubtedly caused me to reflect more deeply on practice and, thus, made me a better practitioner.
Once my dissertation is published, I may (or may not) choose to edit it into an academic article or another vehicle for publication. But because my work actually included an investigation as to to the worthiness of academic degrees in being a head of school, I thought I would share a snippet of my research to close this post:
The importance of credentials
There was no doubt that my credentials, primarily being an alumnus of the American Jewish University (then called the University of Judaism), a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and a member of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, played a significant role in my hire (as founding head of school). The hope of the search committee was that I would bring best practices learned from those schools and programs to my job so that the school could be successfully founded. To the degree that I was able to utilize my leadership skills, I believe this hypothesis has been proven accurate time and time again. I have little doubt that without the training I received, particularly the experiences of the Day School Leadership Training Institute, I would have fallen on my face from day one.
My experiences were largely spent trying to move the school’s leadership and to understand and endorse the best practices I believed were, in fact, ‘best’ because of what I had learned through my academic and professional programs. Founding committees should rightly consider the importance of academic credentials and that programs such as DSLTI should continue to be promoted and taken seriously. There are no guarantees that it will take the specific skills mastered in the specific toolbox of each academic or professional program provides to successfully perform the job of founding a new school. It is, however, reasonable to assume that the more skills available to the practitioner, the higher the likelihood is for success to occur. Both the literature review and the data have clearly demonstrated how educational leadership is as much about knowing which skills to apply when then it is about mastering one best specific set of skills.
I do think it is reasonable to make a few conclusions about how academic and professional programs designed to prepare people for the headship could increase the odds for success. There is great value to emphasizing real-world and real-work situations. DSLTI does a terrific job presenting mini-case studies for fellows to struggle through in a learning environment prior to confronting them in the workplace. Mentoring and coaching are essential components. Opportunities to shadow and reflect with experienced heads would be useful as well. It is impossible to replicate and role-play every situation that could occur in the headship, but it is possible to shift the emphasis from theory to practice, particularly in professional preparatory programs. This also holds true for the schools. New schools and schools preparing for new heads should seriously consider building coaching into the normal practice of professional development.
Dr. Jon Mitzmacher