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It was, as the kids say, a very cringy moment.

About 30 of us from the Prizmah Day School Conference were sitting in a classroom in the Ron Clark Academy, watching THE Ron Clark give a math lesson to a group of 5th grade students. The Ron Clark Academy is a revolutionary school in Atlanta, which, since its founding in 2007, has hosted close to 40,000 teachers who come to learn about the school’s unique culture and approach to student engagement. Ron Clark is kind of a big deal in the educational world. Not many educators have been portrayed by Matthew Perry in their own made-for-TV movie. The campus tour did not disappoint. Watching Clark teach was like watching an elite athlete or highly skilled artist perform. He was teaching high-level math, and every 5th grader in the room was laser focused on him. There was singing, there were drums, there were segments when Clark taught entirely in sign language, and there was a big red button that started a full-on mini dance party with lasers and music to celebrate successful learning.

So, what was so uncomfortable?

During the lesson, one of the students was called on to present a math problem. She followed the protocols for the class, calling on other students, asking for their input, and even seeking help when she got stuck. At the conclusion of her presentation, Clark stood up and encouraged her to solicit feedback from her fellow students. “How did she do on her communication? What did you think about her choice of words? How many different kids did she call on?” Students were asked to rank their friend on a scale of 1 to 10. Many students gave her 2’s and 3’s in different areas. Clark also shared his feedback with the student presenter, in which he noted some of the mistakes she made, including turning around to face the board instead of keeping her face to the class. He concluded his comments with “you know, this is the 3rd time you have presented, so some of these issues, you really should be showing more improvement on at this point. You should be showing more growth in these areas the next time you present.”

Ouch. I imagined myself being on the receiving end of that feedback. All of the responses quieting up in my brain, my defense mechanisms taking over as my face would get flushed. But this poised and impressive 5th grade student accepted it, even repeating some of the key criticisms out loud. It was clear that she had internalized the feedback and was eager to grow from it. Wild stuff. I think all of us observing simultaneously imagined what that conversation might look like in our own schools, and simultaneously had the same strained look on our faces thinking about it. Was there something in the water in Atlanta?

After the students left, Clark outlined his goal: creating open and healthy feedback conversations in class. He got his students to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable by 1) creating and nurturing a comfortable family culture in the class from the first moments the group comes together, and 2) as a teacher, modeling the process by frequently asking students for honest feedback of his teaching, making sure that the students feel empowered to give it.

The theme of the Prizmah conference was “Dare to Dream.” I was admittedly a bit cynical about the title at first, as I always look for practical take-home ideas, and the notion of dreaming seemed to convey something far off and hypothetical. But Ron Clark’s two step approach to healthy classroom feedback crystalized it for me. “Dare to Dream” is really just another way of saying “get uncomfortable.” When we dream, we think about big audacious ideas that no responsible leader would really be able to execute because its impractical, expensive, and hard. When we do that, we are getting comfortable with discomfort. We are pushing ourselves beyond the familiar territory of what has worked and what is and what we are used to.

How do you get comfortable with discomfort? As Ron Clark told us in his classroom, by creating a warm culture and modeling desired behaviors. I thought back over the three days of the conference, and I realized how true this was.

For me, the warm culture is my network. I have been blessed to be a part of several different groups, most recently DSLTI, where there is an incredible sense of closeness among our cohort. Those individual and collective relationships create nothing short of a different type of learning experience. There is space to be vulnerable, and I know that I have not just colleagues, but friends, who support me and are excited to learn together.

The warm embrace of my cohort gives me the courage to model actions beyond my comfort zone, and it similarly allows me to learn from others who also feel empowered to model. It gives me the confidence to say “I don’t know,” which is the best way to be primed for learning. In one Prizmah session, the Teachers Guild lead us through a design thinking brainstorming exercise. As someone who likes to have everything planned out in advance, the idea of just letting go and really embracing any idea that arises is not something that I do naturally. But with a table of supportive friends, and a framework that emphasized listening to others, I was able to embrace this approach, and it was a true eye opener.

So what’s the takeaway? We want tachlis, right? I can think of a few:

1) Find Your Tribe: We are blessed to live in an age where there are a variety of different options for Jewish educators to become part of a group devoted to learning and growing together. Programs like YOU Lead, Jewish New Teacher Project, AviChai’s Harvard Summer cohorts, and DSLTI are just a few of the opportunities available. And if you cannot find a program to join, make your own! If you are more digitally minded, consider communicating regularly over social media with colleagues on JEDLAB (Facebook) and #JSchat (Twitter and WhatsApp). Or, just reach out to a few colleagues in your school and set up a monthly lunch meeting to discuss teaching ideas. Joining a group has been one of the richest elements of my own learning, and it has provided me with invaluable support in both good and challenging times. This is the warm culture that spurs the honest feedback in Mr. Clark’s classroom, and it is the same culture that gives me the confidence to take chances.

2) You Are the Variable: We must recognize that the power for change starts with ourselves rather than others. Many of the discussions I have with teachers about classroom management focus on how we can change student behavior. Angela Watson, in a recent podcast , discusses being a “Warm Demander,” in which the teacher pays close attention to their own verbal and physical cues in order to raise expectations for students while maintaining positive relationships. It is powerful because, as Watson states, it “allows you to focus more on who you are – how you show up in the classroom – rather than getting caught up in students’ frustrating behaviors or failure to meet learning goals. This is about thinking about who you are as a person in the classroom: the way you show up, your personality, attitude, and enthusiasm.” Whether you are a teacher influencing change in your classroom, an administrator doing the same for your school, or even a lay leader moving a board or community forward, change happens when we recognize that we are the variable. We cannot wait for others to grow. This is the modeling that Clark told us about in his classroom, and what he reiterated at a recent ASCD conference, when he said “As an administrator, we don’t have a right to complain. We need to infuse positive energy into the school. That is our primary job.” 

3) Go First: Ron Clark told us about how powerful it was for his students when he invited them to share their feedback about his teaching. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott shares a model for feedback that rests on the principles that she calls “care deeply, challenge directly.” How does one get their direct reports comfortable with receiving direct and honest feedback? It starts with the leader: “the hardest part of building this trust is inviting people to challenge you, just as directly as you are challenging them. You have to encourage them to challenge you directly enough that you may be the one who feels upset or angry.” (Radical Candor, p.14.) Modeling something uncomfortable like asking others to talk about what they think of you, is really helpful in building up a culture where others will do the same.

4) Lean into Wisdom: Adam Grant recently distinguished between knowledge and wisdom: “The mark of a lifelong learner is recognizing that you can learn something from everyone you meet. Knowledge is best sought from experts. Wisdom can come from anywhere.”  Educators, whether serving as leaders of a class, or as leaders in a building or community, are often expected to know all the answers. What would it look like if we used our positions of influence to shift leadership to the model described by Ben Zoma: “who is wise? He who learns from all people.”  Leaders can normalize the process of seeking help and guidance from others, and in doing so, model real learning for all stakeholders. In doing so, we reinforce the notion that its ok not to have all the answers. Being uncomfortable is where we can really learn.

Rabbi Dov Emerson
Director of Teaching and Learning, Yeshiva University High School for Boys / MTA