Shira Heller is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Manhattan Day School, a N-8 Orthodox Yeshivah with a student population of 550. Shira’s work as an educator includes experience as teacher, coach, networker, and consultant. “Whatever my role, I am always thinking about the human beings in front of me, and what they need in order to grow.”

Interviewing Shira Heller

It is perfectly fitting that the last installment of the Innovation Is… series features an interview with Shira Heller. Prior to her work at Manhattan Day School, Shira was Director of Teaching and Learning at Prizmah, where I had the opportunity to experience, firsthand, her innovative and insightful thinking and problem-solving. It was Shira who suggested that I crowdsource a definition and examples of “innovation” as pertains to Jewish day schools, so if you’ve enjoyed or benefitted from this series of interviews, you have Shira to thank. 

What is innovation?
Innovation is pushing your boundaries. What is new, exciting and risky for one person or school might be different for another person or school. Exploring what you’ve always done and pushing the boundary to discover the next great thing, that’s innovation.

Describe what you’re doing at your school that is innovative?
A lot of what we’re doing at MDS is that which would be considered innovative anywhere. Like many schools, we have a STEM lab, we’re exploring robotics, coding, programming…. all of the tech innovations. And we are also examining our curriculum holistically in order to make sure it’s in alignment with our values. The processes we’re using for that are highly collaborative. We’re working with teachers, parents, other Jewish day schools and other independent schools, as well as integrating the latest research, to discover what feels right for our values and culture, what is respectful to our traditions. It’s not just in teaching and learning that we’re pushing our practice; our business office is also pushing their practices. The whole school is involved in this work of taking our school to the next level. We’re learning together through the process and making mistakes. MDS has several new leaders, and we’re talking about that transparently so that we embrace the values of growth, learning and experimentation.

MDS has several new leaders, and we’re talking about that transparently so that we embrace the values of growth, learning and experimentation.

What is most exciting for you about your school’s innovative work?
The teachers! Their enthusiasm for growing, learning, experimenting and how infectious that is, extending to students and even parents. I feel so excited by the opportunity to work with them.

What do you find challenging  about innovation in schools?
Sometimes people feel that if you want to grow that means there’s something wrong with what you’re currently doing, that the desire to innovate is an implied criticism that you’re not good enough. There’s nothing wrong with growth….we love our four year old just as he is,  but we also want him to turn five. Our school’s growth is like that, it’s about getting to our next birthday, to make sure that we’re growing. I’m so proud of who we are at 75, and I want us to be even better at 76.

Another challenge is that when I feel excited about something, I sometimes feel breathless, like everything’s happening so fast. There’s a need to balance momentum and excitement with not wanting to crush anyone with the pace of change. We need innovation and growth that feels exciting but not overwhelming.

What does one need to be successful as an innovator?  
Curiosity. Asking the what if question and getting curious….asking “What if we tried this or that?” leads us to thinking about what might be next.  That can be anything from an individual child with a need or a school wide program. Stay curious about the possibilities and what would have to be true to realize those possibilities.

How do you continue learning?
I really love Twitter. I follow a lot of thought leaders in education and business on Twitter. My Twitter friends and colleagues suggest interesting things to read. (Follow Shira on Twitter here.)
I rely on my colleagues from my whole career who recommend books and articles, and I’ve recently become more interested in podcasts.

  Some of Shira’s current favorite podcasts:

Two Teachers On a Train
Dear Hank and John
Akimbo: A Podcast from Seth Godin
This American Life
99% invisible

How and where do you reflect on and share your own learning?
I’m currently working on a faculty newsletter. The first issue is coming soon. That will be  a place to reflect and share internally, to share what we’re reading, thinking about, and learning together. I am fortunate to work with a leadership coach who helps me by holding me accountable to reflect. That’s really important because the temptation to stay in the tactical is huge, so having that time to think big picture is enormous.

What book inspires you?
My bookshelf is both resource and inspiration art.

The top three titles on my mind lately are:

  1. Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly
  2. Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable
  3. The Advantage

One of Shira’s current favorite reads

What inspires you in your work?
The students.
I am really lucky. My office looks straight down the elementary school corridor. I asked the kids, when I first met them, to wave to me when they walk by, so all day I see them waving. 
They are my why. Seeing them waving at me every day and knowing that they count on us to provide them with a healthy, dynamic and sound education is what inspires me.

They are my why. Seeing them waving at me every day and knowing that they count on us to provide them with a healthy, dynamic and sound education is what inspires me.

What words of inspiration can you share with other innovators?
I’ll share with you something from Pirke Avot:

B’Makom She’Ein Anashim Hishtadel Li’Hiyos Ish
In a place where there is no man, try to be a man.

The idea is that you don’t have to be perfect, but if there’s something that needs to be done, you should try to do it.  The word is Hishtadel- you should try. Put yourself out there….try.

I also want to share that it’s really hard to innovate alone. I feel grateful to the team here at MDS and to all of my colleagues, friends, and mentors throughout my life who have helped me think differently. I’m so grateful to not be alone but to be part of a team of people who care about MDS and Jewish education and are working to take us to our next best self.