The Blessing of Honest Feedback

10 January 2014  
9 Shevat 5774  

Shalom Chaverim,  

Everyone here at Gann Academy would like to express our gratitude and profound relief that 16-year-old Caleb Jacoby, a student at Maimonides and a member of our Jewish community, has been found safe and well.  

One of my most significant responsibilities as Head of School is to listen and learn about our school from as many people as possible, especially our students, who  often teach me a great deal. In this spirit, each winter I schedule weekly lunches with every senior advisory group, inviting them to my office and asking them to share with me their reflections about Gann. I want to know what they see as salient, defining positives or successes of a Gann education and what they see as significant areas of weakness, areas in need of improvement or change. 

 Our students never cease to amaze me, both with the thoughtfulness and pointedness of their (loving) critique and with their unsolicited gratitude and appreciation. Most often, there is great consistency in their feedback, which indicates to me that they are focusing not only on the “little things” that affect their individual experiences but also that they are able to “get on the balcony” of the school and serve as my thought partners about how to improve the Gann experience.  

 I am most excited by and appreciative of our students’ candor, openness, and willingness to give honest, even hard, feedback. I know that may sound strange given that high school students rarely seem reluctant to share what’s on their minds. But, in reality, I have learned that one of the greatest challenges of leadership is that, once you are in a position of power, people may not be honest or direct with you. I remember a conversation with one of my mentors, a veteran head of school, before I became Head of School at Gann. “What will be most different about being Head of School from every other position you have ever held in a school?” he asked me, and then answered his own question. “One word: power.” I happened to be spending time with this same mentor the day before Gann announced my appointment as Head, and he shared with me these memorable words of advice: “Remember, tomorrow, everything changes.” 

 I couldn’t really comprehend his message at the time, but I have come to see and understand at least part of what he meant. It seems to be built into the nature of human systems and organizations that people often are reluctant or unwilling to be honest with leaders who hold power over them. It also seems true that the leaders often exacerbate this challenge through actions or attitudes that discourage people from communicating with others openly and honestly.  

If a leader’s primary responsibilities include listening and learning, this phenomenon poses a significant challenge to effective leadership.  One question we need to constantly ask ourselves as a learning community is: how do we cultivate relationships in which people are willing to be honest and direct with each other, regardless of power and role, in the name of learning and growth?  

While we will continue to wrestle with this question as a school, I know how blessed I am when our students, alumni, parents, teachers, and staff share honest, hard feedback with me. This is what makes my senior lunches so special and such a beautiful example of what makes the Gann community so unique.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  






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