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Michal Mari

1. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. To begin, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself. Where and how did you grow up?

I grew up on Long Island. I went to Stern College for my undergraduate degree. I went to Yeshiva University for my masters, and New York University for postgraduate work. At NYU, I got my certification in school supervision and administration at the building and district levels. I started working at HAFTR 24 years ago. For the first nine years I worked as assistant principal, and then principal, of the middle school. I came here 15 years ago. For the first two years, I was associate principal of the high school, and then I was promoted to principal of the high school. So, some of the children who were in the middle school when I first started working here have children in 8th grade who are coming to the high school next year! 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m so amused you think I have any free time in my life! I have three children, all of whom are adults, but I do like spending time with them. I like to go into the city; my two daughters both moved to the city. I like to spend time visiting with them. Before COVID, I loved to go to museums and go to the theater, and I cannot wait to resume some of those activities. I love reading in my spare time, and I also love spending time with friends, especially during Shabbos afternoon walking. I love music, and I am very happy when I'm reading and listening to music. I love New York City, and I’m very happy when I have the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the city. I love that in the city I can walk for five, six miles. Here, it’s not as much fun walking as it is in Manhattan. So, yes, that’s what I love doing in my spare time.

2. Who, or what, influenced you to go into education? Was there any person in particular?

My mom was a teacher, but she stopped teaching after she got married and had children, so I never really saw her in that role. She has two younger sisters, both of whom were also teachers, whom I did observe as professionals. I saw how much my aunts loved teaching, and how much time and energy they devoted to preparing and working with their students; that was certainly motivation for me. When I went to college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something that had to do with service, and helping people, and possibly do  something on behalf of children. When I was contemplating graduate programs, Yeshiva University had opened a new graduate program in special education for children with emotional disturbances and behavioral disorders. I thought that that would be a wonderful opportunity to work with students who really had complicated challenges. So I did my masters in special ed for people with emotional and behavioral disorders. After teaching for a few years, I was promoted to a curriculum coordinator. Then I went back and did more graduate work at NYU. 

3. What is your philosophy for running HAFTR? Describe your leadership style. 

In one word, I would say my leadership style is collegial. I have tried very hard to nurture and mentor and guide teachers so that they can take on more responsibility and leadership roles. Many of the people who are in leadership positions in HAFTR started out when I was here as classroom teachers, or they were in much less responsible positions. I really try to involve people, and to get people to be engaged. I want teachers to take on more responsibility, and to be motivated and excited to take on more leadership. I try to give people the opportunity to grow, and to take on more responsibility, and I also consider myself very consultative – I never mandate things, I never impose a new policy. Instead, I brainstorm with colleagues to talk about what we think is in the best interest of children. I feel that when people are engaged in the conversation, and are involved in the deliberations and the decision-making, they buy into it; then they are more invested in the positive outcome and success of the program. 

4. What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses in your career?

Do I get to not be falsely modest here? I think strengths are that I’m very knowledgeable in education, obviously, but I also think that I have excellent relationships. Going back to your question about leadership, when I came to the middle school and then nine years later I came to the high school, I spent my first year just building relationships with teachers through listening to them and earning their trust. I didn’t come in and say, “Oh we’re doing this my way.” I came in and said, “Tell me how things work here. Tell me what you do. Tell me what you think could be better.” I think in order to build relationships you must earn trust with people, and show them that you’re loyal and you can support them. You must show people that you can make things better for them, and you can help to facilitate their success – and by the way, that’s true for children and colleagues in the building. When people trust you, when they know your commitment is authentic, and that you really do have their best interests at heart and you want to facilitate their success. Everything kind of flows so much more easily and happily when there’s trust. So, I would say that is a big strength of mine. Also I am not afraid to take responsibility. I’m not afraid to take on challenges, and I’m also not afraid to deal with difficult situations or difficult people. I see that as part of my responsibility on behalf of the school. But I also think it’s important to be able to do the hard stuff and tackle the challenges, and deal with it in a way that really represents the school well. In terms of weaknesses, I daven a lot over wanting to make the right decision. Sometimes I think that I overthink things. But it’s always because I want to make the decision that’s the smartest and the wisest, and that’s in the best interest of the child or the school or whatever it is. When it comes to the moment, if I need to be decisive, I am a very good decision maker. But when it comes to different approaches to things, or weighing things, I probably overthink sometimes how to strategize.

5. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that teachers face today?

What I am going to say is about teachers in general, and I think it’s less true about teachers in HAFTR. But I think, in general, in this country today, particularly in the public school system, the biggest challenges that teachers face is that their job is no longer just about educating children and facilitating their learning. They’re also, in many instances, acting as a student’s social worker, or worrying about a child’s emotional or mental health, as well as their physical health. So I think those are challenges in general. Honestly, a challenge for teachers in HAFTR, I think, is competing for student’s attention with social media, and with other distractions. Students are tethered to their devices 24/6 now. I think that prior to students having devices full-time, teachers had an easier time engaging students and sustaining their attention. I think that competing with social media and with devices can be a challenge. I think our teachers are pretty great, but I do think that’s the biggest challenge, teachers are struggling with that to a certain extent. 

6. Speaking of, what do you look for in your teachers? What are some important qualities for them to be successful?

This is high school. Teachers first and foremost need to be experts in their discipline, meaning that they need to be highly knowledgeable about the subject they are teaching. They need to be steeped in the content and the subject matter that they are teaching. Second, in addition to being knowledgeable about their subject and well-read and ongoing learners, they also need to be highly skilled in the pedagogy of their subject. Teaching math is different from teaching chumash, which is different from teaching biology, which is different from teaching English literature. We look for teachers who are not just very smart and very knowledgeable, but who also are very well-versed and skilled and experienced in the pedagogy of the content that they’re teaching. Third, we look for teachers who are compassionate, caring human beings. We want our teachers not just to be able to teach AP English or AP Bio or whatever it is; we want them to be able to facilitate the emotional growth and well-being of their students, and to care deeply about kids. I want teachers who are looking at children through the lens of who they are as a whole person, not just as a student in math, or in talmud. We also want people who understand, appreciate, and will support the culture of our school. Our culture is very deliberately warm, inclusive, supportive, and positive. We don’t want teachers who are going to be negative and critical and punitive; instead we want teachers who are going to be caring, supporting, and positive educators. We also want people to be collegial with each other--people who will share information and their lesson plans and ideas, and be positive. We want people who are excellent communicators, so that they can communicate with their students and with their students' parents about their students’ progress and achievement and engagement. 

7. What kind of improvements have you seen over the course of time you’ve worked here, and what’s changed?

So many! Really, this is going to take about an hour and a half. First, when I came here there were only AP, advanced placement, or Regents level courses. There was no honors English, or honors social studies. A student was either in AP or regular. I introduced the honors level for students who needed to be a little more challenged but were really not qualified or motivated enough to take on the hard work of an Advanced Placement course. There were other students who wanted the challenge, but really were struggling in AP, so we created an honors level for all the areas where there were only AP or regular levels. I take great pride in that because that’s really better for students. There was no Achievement Center when I got here. I wanted to establish the Achievement Center the year I got here, but I couldn’t. When I became principal, I persuaded our lay leadership that this was a good idea. We hired Dr. Josh Wyner to be the first director of the Achievement Center. We started the Achievement Center with a very small group of children, seven children, in the first year. Now there are 40 something children in all four grades who get support academically in order to be able to be successful in Regents-level core curriculum subjects. Obviously there were physical improvements in the building, such as the gorgeous brand new gym and magnificent STEM labs. We didn’t even have a STEM program when I came here. We introduced the CIJE two-year program a long time ago. I was actually doing the E2K program in the middle school with CIJE, so we introduced the CIJE tech program here. We’ve greatly expanded our STEM program so that there are STEM classes in every grade now. I will also add that, with the efforts of many colleagues, there has been a tremendous positive change in the quality of student activities and student programming, and the engagement of students’ school spirit has really risen tremendously. 

8. So in these last few years, we’ve hit these unprecedented times. How did you respond to the instructional challenges of the pandemic?

HAFTR in general, and the high school in particular, was forward thinking.When it became apparent that COVID-19 was something more than this casual event, we actually did some proactive teacher training in the weeks leading up to the time that the school closed. Then we made the transition to remote learning. Our teachers had all been trained in Google Classroom, and they knew how to set up a Google Meet and Zoom.We had been doing teacher training during lunch periods, but we wanted to do more intensive teacher training.  I remember that we closed school on a Friday, so that we could train teachers again. We trained teachers for the entire day, and we were planning on doing it again on Monday, and then New York State closed all the schools. But our teachers were well-versed in Google Meet and Zoom and had already set up all their Google Classrooms, and they had already started moving their materials into digital formats so that they could upload them. We did one day of what we called our “remote orientation day,” to give students and teachers one day to try it out. Everyone logged onto all their classes and all the teachers made sure there were no kinks, and we hit the ground running. Over the course of the time we were home, we kept checking on teachers and working with students to make sure that they had everything they needed to be able to learn remotely. In August 2020, we did more teacher training before the students returned to school. When we were able to reopen school at the end of August 2020, if you remember, teachers had two computers and they were simultaneously teaching students who were learning remotely while teaching students who were in the classroom. Teachers had been receiving training at the end of the summer to do that. It was still a transition, and I think that some teachers are natural and found it easy, while others needed a little more support. But everyone got there. Can I say one other thing? Our teachers were amazing. They were so dedicated, they really wanted their students to be successful, even though we were not giving any Regents exams, particularly in 2020. We knew we weren’t giving Regents, but teachers kept teaching every single topic and unit and making sure that students knew everything they needed to know so that when they got to the next grade, they had the full curriculum. They had learned everything. In some public schools, students lost months of actual learning. Our students lost no time. We still administered AP exams, even though they were remote. We did everything we could to make sure that our students were sustained in their learning and were on track for next year’s courses.When everyone came back last year, students were ready. It was great. And this year even more so, obviously, so much better.

9. Personally, what did you do to cope with the difficulties that the pandemic brought with it? Did you pick up any new hobbies during the quarantine?

Is Zoom a hobby, because that’s all I did. I know this sounds crazy, but during the quarantine, my days were longer, and I was working harder. I felt like I was in front of my computer from 8 in the morning to 10 at night. We had faculty meetings at night after school. We were having conversations with parents, teachers, and students. Other than Pesach, it felt like we had no downtime during the quarantine. I would also say, for us in the high school, there were still several very important events that were coming up: our National Honor Society Induction Ceremony Celebration of Excellence and, as I said, the AP exams. We organized and scheduled a full complement of final exams that we administered remotely so that students would have the experience of preparing for, reviewing for, and taking a comprehensive test because that’s really part of high school and pre-college preparation. And we also had to do our senior dinner and our graduation, so we spent a tremendous amount of time brainstorming and planning how to do all those events in the midst of a pandemic. For example, we did the Celebration for Excellence remotely, online. It was wonderful, but we had never done it like that before. We couldn’t do the senior dinner in person, so we had a drive-by where students picked up their awards and also picked up some goodies.We also had a project they were going to do, and then we all got on a Zoom together at night to do the project, to watch a wonderful video. But every one of those meant recreating an event. We had to recreate an entire plan for graduation. So, no, I didn’t have any hobbies. Really, it was fulfilling every single one of our end-of-year events in a way that would be successful. Everyone loved our graduation. The graduation was so much work and planning.We did it at the Sands, humongous screens, radio so the parents could tune in, it was amazing, but it was so labor-intensive. And not just for me, for so many people. So that’s what I was doing during quarantine. 

10. What did you learn about yourself over that time period? It feels like we all made some sort of self-discovery.

I won’t say this is the first time I learned this about myself, but it was a reminder for me that I have a tremendous amount of resilience. I’m going to say something personal about myself. I feel like when we have challenges, Hashem has given us the inner resources and strength to deal with them, but we have to find them, and we have to call them up. I had some confidence that I could find those inner resources and find that resilience. I am, by nature, an optimistic person. I believe that Hashem programs us for healing when we are physically injured. I believe that Hashem programs us to be able to meet challenges with strength and dignity and grace. That’s what I really tried to do throughout this. And also, when you are an organizational leader, whether it’s with a school, or a law firm, or a hospital, it’s never really about you. It’s about making sure that everyone else is good. My main focus was making sure that my fellow administrators and my teachers were good, and that my students were doing well. It was really about making sure that everyone else was getting the support that they needed to be able to do their jobs successfully. 

11. To conclude, what are your hopes for the future of HAFTR?

You mean, past the obvious hope that we will at some point be out of this pandemic? So I hope that on the academic, educational level, we still refine and enhance and revise our educational program to constantly do things in a way that is slightly better than the way we had been doing them. Whether it is adding new courses, adding new programs, modifying programs the way we do them now, the goal is always to enhance our students’ educational experience. In terms of my hopes for HAFTR in general, HAFTR is unique in its mission and vision as a Modern Orthodox institution. My hope is that we continue to grow, and that our current students become our next generation of parents, and that we continue to be able to educate our students to be successful, functioning, contributing members of our larger society, while still being observant, religious Jews, both in their personal lives, and also in the sensibilities that they bring to whatever job they have. I don’t care if they’re an architect, or a lawyer, or a Rebbe, or a teacher, or something more creative, like a biomedical engineer, I want them to be a Modern Orthodox biomedical engineer, who brings “bein adam lechavero” to the way that he or she conducts themselves in their profession. I want them to be a role model, I want them to be involved in their community, I still want them to be ardent supporters of Israel, that’s what I want for HAFTR. I want us to keep creating future generations of people who are both educated, knowledgeable, productive members of society, and that can contribute to whatever discipline or field they choose to go into. I also want to sustain and build the Orthodox community, support for Israel, and to be role models for being a mensch, a bein adam, and conducting ourselves in a certain way.

Interview with Ms. Lippman: Academics
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