By Sarah Levy, Head of School, Einstein Academy. Pardes Day School Educators Program ’08-’10
After a little over a year of planning, Einstein Academy opened its doors (in the midst of a worldwide pandemic) in the fall of 2020. I never wanted to start a school, and the way I ended up here is the topic for another time, but I can honestly say that I’ve learned more in the last year and a half of running a startup school than I ever thought possible. And while that learning is full of little nuances that wouldn’t be of interest to anyone else (zoning regulations, legal requirements, what to do when a hawk eats one of your pet chickens), there have certainly been some major takeaways that are worth sharing:
Share your thinking.
My co-founder and I spent years refining our combined philosophy of education, fleshing out every aspect of the school from the schedule to our core values. And then we hired teachers to share in that vision, and it got complicated. We spent weeks in conversation with our teachers before school started, and we thought we’d clearly communicated all that was important. We spent a day talking about the value of assessment, for example – when to use which type, how to analyze the data – so we thought we were good. Turns out, we weren’t. We got two months into the school year and realized that, while we had a shared understanding in theory, we weren’t all on the same page about what assessment looked like in practice.
Lesson: Be overly explicit with your thinking when working collaboratively with others. Ask clarification questions. Set deadlines. Create calendars and charts. This goes for colleagues, supervisors, students, parents, and anyone else with whom you interact. Over communication is so much better than under communication.
A pro and a con of starting a new school is that there is no such thing as “we’ve always done it that way.” My co-founder and I made an agreement when we first started thinking about this school to never just do anything because that’s how we’ve always done it (either personally or as a school). We saw this happen with recess – a notorious challenge for most elementary schools – last year. We had a group of kids in K-5 who had come off of remote learning, had never met each other, and didn’t know anything about the norms of the school, raising the challenge of recess up a few notches. We tried no fewer than 10 different plans for recess – different grouping or locations or structured activities, shorter times or longer times, putting student council in charge. By the end of the year, we had something that kind of worked, but, still, over the summer we continued to think about recess and how to change it up.
Lesson: Never assume that just because that’s how it was, that’s how it needs to be or should be. Think about what your goals are and to what extent what you’re doing correlates…and how you could do it better.
Fail. Learn. Pivot. Iterate. Repeat.
Opening a school (or working in a school or teaching in general) is a process. Something that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. Something that was so beautiful in your head may not turn out like that. Something might fit a need in one situation and be totally wrong for another. While I am constantly inspired by how similar our school in action is to our original vision, we are also constantly evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do (see above – question everything). Do our assessments accurately gather the data we need? Is our schedule best for learners? Should we shift our professional development schedule to better meet the needs of the teachers? Should we just scrap the idea of digital portfolios because it doesn’t seem we have the bandwidth to do them well? Kids and teachers have hated some of the things we’ve tried – we had a Hebrew teacher who lasted 10 days, for example – but we had to be willing to take risks in order to find the things they love – such as an incredible teacher.
Lesson: Set the expectation that there will be mistakes and failures and focus on how you’re going to learn from that. If everything you do is successful, you’re not taking enough risks.
It’s okay to ask for help.
We have developed an amazing network of brilliant thinkers who are eager and willing consultants. We have four members of an advisory board and few dozen other willing accomplices who often get a quick email just titled, “Question,” focused on any number of different topics. Being so wrapped up in the day to day, it’s often refreshing (and necessary) to seek outside thought partnership. It’s a little humbling to recognize and admit that you don’t have the answers to all things all of the time, but it’s also so freeing. No, one will ever exactly understand your challenge or struggle or have had your exact experience, but sometimes that difference is what you need to shift your paradigm and help you find a solution. We’ve reached out about supporting students, differentiating math curriculum, integrating Israel, encouraging teachers, and so much more – and we’ve always been glad that we did.
Lesson: Get connected and stay connected. Open yourself up to asking for the advice and perspective of others; it doesn’t mean that you have to heed it, but it can certainly help you think through whatever is challenging you.
When you love what you do, it’s not work.
Despite this being the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, it’s also the most rewarding. Personally, it’s the first time all four of my kids have been happy at school, and professionally, it’s so fulfilling to feel like what I do matters every day. I am stressed out every day. I have more work to do than hours in which to do it every day. And I love what I do every day.
Lesson: No one goes into education for the money, so it’s important to find the ways to love what you do, even on the most challenging of days.