RABBI DR. YERACHMIEL GARFIELD
When Dr. Irvin Scott stood in front of Longfellow Hall at Harvard University and said he wanted to tell us his story, I assumed his lecture would be entertaining but not impactful. Soon, I found out how wrong I was. His talk was one of the most transformative lessons of the entire week at the prestigious university leadership program.
Young Irvin Scott grew up in a poor inner-city family and was not an inspired student. When his 9th grade English teacher assigned him a poem to memorize, he shrugged it off. Instead of ignoring him, his teacher believed in him and encouraged his work, which led him to successfully complete this project. This experience turned out to be a turning point in his life and put him on a path that led to a doctorate in education, a professorship at Harvard, and the leadership at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where he managed a $300 million-dollar fund. Now as a professor of education in front of our group, Dr. Scott passionately recited his rendition of Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Less Traveled” in a manner that was deeply personal. Dr. Scott described to our group of school leaders how his early educational experience of success has guided his work and passion as an adult. By sharing the story of his early educational experience of success with us he was sharing what has guided his work and passion as an adult and allowed us to gain additional insight into his message. He explained that we all need to understand the importance and impact of knowing and sharing our own stories to be effective change leaders and to effectively set our school culture. When we own our stories, we make mindful decisions that move our schools in a positive direction. Surprisingly, even when the leader is unaware of his impact, it is often these very personal stories that create the organizational culture.
Initially, I did not appreciate his message. As I reflected on the role of stories in Jewish life, in my personal life, and its impact on my professional life, his message crystallized.
Chumash is comprised of many stories. The entire Sefer Bereishis, which sets down the primary principles of our faith, is essentially a multi-generational story of faith and survival. As the Chumash continues, so does the story of our nation – as our people enter and exit Egypt and traverse the desert. The Chumash ends with the story of the Jewish nation preparing to enter the Jewish land of Eretz Yisrael. Likewise, Neviim are essentially books that continue the stories of our people as told by the prophets. This tradition of storytelling continued centuries later in the Talmud, which captures our oral tradition and is chock full of stories and anecdotes brimming with messages and morals.
I had overlooked the fact that Hashem does not view stories as trivial or inconsequential. They are a celebrated method of delivery so powerful that Hashem Himself chose them as a means to communicate His eternal message to Klal Yisrael. With this new-found respect for Dr. Scott and his message, I sat down to reflect on my own story. That night, I went to a park and sat in front of my computer. The following is the story that emerged and captures ideas that I had never reflected on before that moment:
It is difficult to describe to modern educators the state of dysfunction of my elementary school experience. As an adult, I now look back and wonder how so many well-intentioned teachers had missed understanding who I was as a young student. While never disrespectful and rarely disruptive, I was not a successful student. In fifth grade, I remember being sent home for singing after Mrs. Sklar told me to stop. In seventh grade, my Rebbe sent me home for disturbing class. Recently I found a carefully typed document from sixth grade defending myself and expressing the injustice of being kicked out of class for only one disturbance, while others had disturbed many more times without consequence. I can’t recall doing any significant academic work in middle school, never reading school novels, taking any notes or returning much, if any, homework.
Things got so bad that my loving mother offered me a trip to anywhere in the world if I could manage to bring home a report card with no grades lower than a B-. That trip was never earned with report cards reflecting mostly C’s and D’s throughout middle school. The crowning exhibit of this experience was my 8th grade Judaic Studies report card. It contained three Fs and two D’s. I still have this report card and cannot fathom how a school gave out such a document.
Through a series of events and remarkable people, my academic experience started to change in the 9th and 10th grades, which resulted in me making a significant change for my 11th-grade year. I changed schools from a local day school type high school to a much more academically rigorous yeshiva program out of state. (I had applied to this school in 8th grade but had been rejected). Although the limited success that I had experienced in 9th and 10th grades did not fully justify this upgrade in academic rigor, this new school offered a robust religious experience which was very attractive.
As could be expected, I was full of fear as the 11th-grade year started and unsure how I would fair in this advanced playing field. Talmud was a subject of particular concern due to its high-level thinking and textual demands, an area that I had struggled with mightily in 8th grade. When the first test was announced, I decided to dedicate myself fully to my studies; I studied, reviewed and prepared – behaviors that were somewhat new to me.
When Rabbi Abramsky gave back that first test, I did not know what to expect. I hoped that I would pass, but based on previous experience, I was unsure that was a realistic aspiration. As he handed back the tests, I sat in trepidation. When I turned the page over and saw an 83, I began to jump up and down in uncontrolled celebration. I had broken the coveted 80 mark, which meant (at least according to my mother) I had done well. The Rabbi looked somewhat puzzled since my grade was quite far from the highest in the class. To me, it was indeed worthy of jubilation.
As when Dr. Scott memorized his poem, that moment was a breakthrough. It was the first time that it was clear to me that I had the capacity to achieve in an academic setting. From that day forward, my story moves quickly and smoothly. The next year at our Yeshiva graduation, I received an award for highest academic achievement in Judaic Studies and went on to years of rigorous and intensive Talmudic study, culminating in rabbinic ordination. I also have attained a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and have recently completed my Doctorate in Education (all while maintaining a GPA that made my mother proud).
As a child, I was most fortunate to have wise parents who did not share that 8th grade report card with me until many years later. In many ways, I consider what happened to me to be lucky. I could have so easily gone in a very different and sad direction.
After I finished writing this story, it did not take me long to see how central this story has been in my work as an educator. I have come to understand that essentially it is this very story that drives my work as a Head of School and has shaped the culture of the school I lead.
About four years ago, I introduced a tag line to our school faculty. The purpose of a tag line is to focus a team on an important shared mission. Our tagline is published on our website and on signs around the school. It reads: “YTE – Reaching Every Child, Every Day.” Looking back at my story, I now understand where the tag line was formed and why it inspires me. My story has taught me the deep potential every student has and the devastating tragedy when that potential is not accessed in every human being.
It is from my story that I have come to conceptualize my job as an educational leader to ensure that every child is given the opportunity to express his or her talents and capacity. While I have always been committed to digging deeply into my students’ educational profiles to find their path to success, now I understood why. Until this point, I had a strategy of “what” I was trying to achieve; for me, my story is the compelling why.
Many studies have proven that a key element of any school culture is the effectiveness of its leader. Dr. Irvin Scott taught me that to be an effective leader, I need to identify the story that is driving my passion and leadership as a Head of School. When I am in touch with my story, I can share my inspiration with my faculty. Through telling my story, I have given them an insight into who their leader is and why our school culture is focused on “Reaching Every Child, Every Day.” They can start to connect to their own stories which will drive their commitment and passion to reach every child, every day.
I encourage every school leader to answer the questions Dr. Scott asked us that day in Cambridge: What is your own story? How does your background inform your current leadership style? How can sharing your story create a positive culture in your school? Most importantly, how can that story inspire you and your team to support the talmidim/talmidos in your care?
Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, Ed.D., is the Head of School at Yeshivah Torat Emet in Houston, Texas, and serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. Rabbi Garfield welcomes your stories and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.