What’s it like to see things from the principal’s point of view?
All of us have been students, even the teachers and principals among us. They are our archetypal non-parental authority figures, sometimes friendly, sometimes remote, always the omniscient bogeymen: “Don’t make me send you to the principal’s office,” we remember teachers saying.
So what is it like to be a principal? What is it like to transition to the top of a school’s food chain? (Not quite the top — principals must answer to the boards that select them. But at least within their building on a day-to-day basis they are where the buck stops.) What is it like to become the opposite of a student?
Does becoming principal change your perspective on matters? Do you discover that everything you thought about education in kindergarten was wrong?
It turns out that Rabbi Asher Yablok, 37, the new head of school of the Torah Academy of Bergen County, is precisely the wrong educator to ask about his new perspective from the other side of the school administrator’s desk.
That’s because he first learned what it was like to sit in the principal’s chair in middle school, when his family moved to Teaneck and his father, Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, became principal of the Manhattan Day School, an Orthodox Jewish school on the Upper West Side, and his mother, Aviva, became its early childhood director. (Benjamin retired last year after a quarter century; Aviva still is there.)
Studying in his parents’ school gave Asher an unusual perspective.
“It was a little hard for me to have a beef with some thing in school when I knew my parents were responsible for it,” he said. “We would have lengthy conversation walking home from shul. I would complain that a teacher was talking for two hours straight. He had a lot of the teacher-is-always-right perspective when it came to supporting his faculty.”
Asher found this perspective in large measure convincing. “When I was sitting at lunch I would have more of the party line,” he said.
Rabbi Yablok still wants to balance the two perspectives, that of the student and that of the adult in the classroom. “I’m passionate for the students,” he said. “They’re what we’re here for. We have to do our best for them.”
“I’m also very committed to supporting our faculty and the system we run for the benefit of the students.”
Rabbi Yablok started at TABC in July. His position is a new one. He is working closely with the school’s rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Adler, who has led TABC since 1990.
Most recently, Rabbi Yablok had been dean of Judaic studies at the Atlanta Jewish Academy’s upper school. The biggest change in the new job, he said, “is the scale, and also dealing with only one gender.” In Atlanta, his school had 100 boys and girls.
“How to take a school that has such a strong legacy and has room for growth is an exciting challenge,” he said.
“It’s a transition from the pace I’m used to. We have students leaving their homes to come here from the 6 o’clock hour. I close up at the 10 o’clock hour,” he said, when all the extracurricular activities are done.
While “slightly more than half” of TABC’s students come from Bergen County, “there are regular buses from Manhattan, Riverdale, Highland Park, and West Orange.”
Rabbi Yablok’s road to Teaneck started in Seattle, Washington, where his father worked at the Seattle Hebrew Academy before moving to become principal of the Scranton Hebrew Day School. After graduating YU’s high school, known as MTA, he spent two years in yeshiva in Israel and then went to Yeshiva University, where he majored in Judaic studies as an undergraduate, earned a masters in Jewish education focusing on day school administration, and was ordained. He taught in day schools on Long Island and in Saint Louis before moving to Atlanta.
“It’s a similar experience to what I had growing up,” he said of his moves before returning to Teaneck. “I’m excited to come back here.”
He decided to enter the family business while in college. He took part in YU’s Torah tours, which take students to different Jewish communities, and felt “a lot of satisfaction and a lot of competence through teaching.”
So what are his plans for TABC?
“We are looking to continue our legacy of really being student-centered and looking to create opportunities for our students,” he said. “I’m focused on what their needs are and how they can best be prepared for the years beyond high school.”
He said that one of the school’s greatest strengths is “the closeness and warmth” students feel in the school. “We have a broad community,” he said. “There is connection between the grades. I have students sitting in shiur” — Talmud class — “next to upper classmen.
“We’re proud that our faculty and rabbeim” — rabbis — “have such a warm relationship with their students. I played ball with them last Saturday night at our Shabbaton and I was not the exception among the faculty.”
But if warmth is important, so are the concrete concerns of preparing students for today’s world.
Part of the changes he’s bringing involve “cultivating new interests in robotics, engineering, and entrepreneurship,” he said. And part of it is “looking to get students engaged with material in the classroom in a way more similar to how they engage with problems in college and the workforce. This style of pedagogy is something we’re looking to develop. We’re looking at things we need to be up to date on and pushing forward so students are well prepared.
“We’re also looking to cultivate students’ relationship to Torah and observant lives beyond the classroom.”
One new policy he instituted: grade deans.
“Each grade now has its own dean, responsible for student life, and access point for parents and students. We want to be very aware of our students’ needs and our students’ challenges.”
Rabbi Yablok is married to Shira Zeffren, a speech therapist. They have six children, ranging in age from 3 to 12. Does he expect they will follow in his and their grandparent’s professional footsteps?
“I think they would all be very capable,” he said. “They always talk about TABC and ‘Daddy’s students.’ In Atlanta, we watched the TABC games, so they felt connected to that already.
“The same way I want my students to see how you can live a meaningful life as a modern Orthodox adult and be a community leader and professional,” he said. “God willing, my own children can see that’s an exciting profession. That said, their personalities are all over the place. I’d be flattered too if some of my students see a role model for an educator’s life. TABC’s legacy is extremely strong in that area.”