Past the security desk at Frankel, just down the hall and a quick turn to the left . . . that’s where you’ll find Randy Gawel’s office, most often with an open door. It’s telling where he’s chosen his place among the students and teachers of the school. “I was offered a lovely office with windows and a nice view on the other side of the building,” he explains. “But I knew that wouldn’t work for me. I needed to be more a part of the school; so I eschewed windows and a view to be near the kids and the teachers.”

Almost on cue, the quiet corridors of the school came to life for a brief interlude of music, drumbeats and the chatter of students in celebration of “Spirit Week,” Randy continues, “I like what I do – and the reason I like what I do is because of the kids. Because of the teachers. Because of the counselors and social workers. Because of the energy of all these amazing people who come together to influence the process of who these kids are and who they are coming to be. In many ways, what happens here is magical.”

Once a student, always learning

At 48, Randy can say he’s been in school since kindergarten – as a student, a teacher, a coach and an administrator. Originally from Franconia, a small town set in the mountains of New Hampshire, Randy speaks from his experience as a student of both public and private high schools. With a B.A. in English from Lyndon State College, he went on to earn his Master’s in Education at Boston College, where he met his wife, Leah, also a teacher. He then earned an advanced administrative degree from Wayne State University.

Noting the steps to his present position, Randy enumerates, “I student taught in a great big school in Cambridge, MA; I was an English teacher at South Lake High School in St. Clair Shores, MI; I was an assistant principal at Novi High School, one of the top public schools in the state; and then was Principal of Berkley High School, another school that is right right up there in the state rankings. Cumulatively, I am the product of some very cool places to go to school, to grow up as a kid and to come of age as an adult. And, I would say the educational experience at FJA compares as well, if not better, to all of them.”

Members of Congregation B’nai Israel, the Gawels are residents of Novi and FJA parents of Sophia, a graduate in 2018 and a freshman at Dartmouth College, and Samuel, in the senior class of 2019. A highly skilled educator and lifelong student herself, Leah teaches English and the Shoah at Hillel Day School.

In Conversation with Randy Gawel: On Student-Centered Education

myJewishDetroit: What is your role as Director of General Studies?

I oversee what is referred to as “general” high school curricula, the core subjects – Math, Science, Social Studies and English.  I oversee the General Studies teachers, the curricula and, more broadly, the secular academic activities of all our students. Of course, at JFA there are two of us, working in partnership as principals. Doctor Seth Korelitz is Director of Jewish Studies.

Coming from Berkley High, where I was the principal responsible for all aspects of the school with an enrollment of 1,400 students and about 75 classroom teachers, I find that the dynamic here at FJA is certainly different and a welcome change. In my view, a comprehensive education is much more than academics. It’s the work and all the experiences that go into creating one’s place in a community – like a family – where people feel safe, cared for, connected and stronger for being a contributing part of it.

For me,  part of the joy of being here  – coming back to a small school – is my ability to spend more time focusing on what actually happens every day in the classroom, getting to know the students and teachers. Within the first 30 days of the semester, I would estimate that I’ve visited 150 classes in session. This morning, for example, I went into a classroom where students were learning more challenging parts of the English language; and another where they were studying the community in regards to environmental science; a class learning about chemical reactions; and another learning about psychology and the human brain; a science class learning about velocity; a social studies class learning about the civil rights movement. I get to see the progress with each and every student in the school . . . what better thing to be a part of?

On early years, influences and mentors

Q: From public to private school to Jewish education . . . please share your story. What factors have played into your transitions to FJA?

I would say first that wherever I’ve been as an educator, my goal always has been to create a community. I think that stems from my roots, my family and my experience growing up in a town of about 600 people. For two years, I attended a public high school comprising six townships with an enrollment of only 250 students. In my junior year, I transferred to a private boarding school, not far away from where my family lived, and that school had about 110 kids. There I felt a real connection to the teachers, who we called by their first names. We knew them in a personal way; we’d go skiing with them; we were connected in ways that seemed like a family – in ways that were unlike anything I experienced in public high school.  

Frankel fits with my philosophy – an approach to education that provides kids the opportunity to be who they are in a place that is safe and nurturing, all the while striking that balance between caring and challenging. There’s no single path on this journey. Our job is to give young people the tools to find their own way.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a teacher? What drew you to education?

The question that often comes up is why would I want to do this, why spend my day with kids? And I think back to my own education and in many ways it saved me. I was not a good student, something of a bother, in trouble a lot. I think about those teachers who helped me, and cared about me  – in loco parentis – “in place of parents” as it is said of teachers in school. I remember my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Tuttle, a great guy. Even in high school, when he knew I was struggling (we were a small town and picked up the bus for high school at the elementary school) he’d say, come in early and I’ll help you with your math. He and I are still friends on Facebook.

I have had many mentors along the way through college; they all knew their subjects, but they also were individuals, human beings unafraid to let that be a part of their persona in the classroom. I believe that’s the key — to be who you are.

Q: How has your role as an educator evolved or changed since you first became Principal at Berkley?

We don’t have a lot of great role models for principals. It’s a great comedy role when you think of the guy in Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I’m thankful for JK Rowling for at least giving us Hogwarts! I think about the analogy of Hogwarts as a magical place. And so is school.

School should be transformative, a place where things not before imagined come together in ways that you can make them reality.

What I finally realized — much to my betterment in becoming a Principal at Berkley (and now to be carried on a FJA) — is that I need to be who I am in whatever role I’m in. When I first became a principal, I thought I needed to be “principally” – in whatever way I imagined that role to be. I forgot about those great educators I had, and tried to fit what other people around me thought a principal should be. That never worked for me. What has changed in me is the realization that I have become myself. And that has made me more open and understanding . . . as a parent, an educator, a mentor, a colleague, in every role I have.

Randy Gawel

Travel is a transformative experience: As Principal at Berkley High, Randy Gawel led a group of student volunteers to a small village in the Dominican Republic to teach English to elementary school children.

On the power of a Jewish education

Q: In the arc of your education and career, how is Frankel the right choice for you now? And what do you tell parents considering making the choice of Frankel for their children?

I was a Frankel parent first. My kids were here and were able to become who they are here.  I have an investment in what happens at Frankel and deep understanding of the school – knowing the place, knowing my kids in this place has helped me make the transition.

And then, there are the questions that every parent and educator must ask today about the state of public education. Are the mandates of the system still working? Are the curricula, the number of hours in school, and the testing and evaluations truly accurate measures of academic achievement? How is the industrial model of education – a system that has been in place for more than 100 years still relevant? How do we best address the needs and interests of our children in the pursuit of understanding who they are?

The change will not be immediate. But here at Frankel, it’s much easier to effect change. We don’t answer to the dictates of state. We don’t have the state requirement of 180 days/ 1098 hours of school each year. Starting at 7:30 a.m., we actually have a longer day because of additional studies and a morning minyan we provide to students and teachers alike.

Yes, we‘re looking at our school day, asking is it the best use of our precious time with our kids. Research suggests that kids shouldn’t start school before 8:30 a.m. – so we’re looking at that. What if we held minyan in the afternoon, for 20 or 30 minutes instead of 40? What if we did minyan two or three times a week, instead of four times?

Our size gives us the flexibility to adapt and explore so many possibilities. What if we offered “majors”— as in college? So if a student has a strong interest in Jewish studies, for example, he or she could pursue that path. And for those with an interest in another field – science, math, humanities, art, maybe those students don’t need four years of of another subject if that’s not their choice.

Team teaching is one of new things we’re trying this year. Working on a year-long project with our incoming freshmen, our 9th grade English and Social Studies teachers are collaborating to weave their curricula together with the overarching question:  What Is It to Be Human?  Our students are exploring various vehicles to get them there — sports, art, music, literature. They can “choose their own adventure” – find their own paths to the answers and to conclude with a presentation to a panel of parents, teachers and peers.

At the end of the day, at the end of the year, what we want is that the kids take on their required classes, their added electives and special projects for reasons that inspire and motivate them. Yes, AP credits are nice external measurements, but what I really like to see is whether that child who takes an AP class or an independent project is more likely to finish college in four years, and succeed because he or she has been exposed at FJA to an advanced level curriculum and acquired the level of study, the skills and work habits to take on their next steps in life.

To answer the question how Frankel fits into my philosophy of education, and to address parents asking the same questions,  I would say if a Jewish education is a fit for your child, for your family – then by all means we provide that journey. FJA is open to working on how the many ways our school fits and connects with families raising Jewish children – culturally, religiously and personally. Just as there are myriad opportunities within secular studies to find your way in the world, so too can you find those opportunities within your identity as a Jew.

On Jewish Detroit’s Teen Mental Health Initiative

Q: As a parent with teens of your own, what do you see as some of the challenges facing parents today?

The challenges aren’t all that different than what our parents experienced. We all want our children to feel connected and loved, to be happy, to be kind, inquisitive, curious, prepared, adaptable, resilient in a secular sense, in a Jewish sense, in every sense.

I do believe we have changed in the way we understand how we can support our children and help them. Not to bubble wrap them in such a way that they can’t experience life and understand failure. But to work with them so that whatever those things are – their failures, their shortcomings – their imagined shortcomings – that we’re able to help them navigate and move through their challenges.

Q: What do you hear from the kids?

One thing is for sure: I never talked to my principal in public high school the way kids talk to me. They can walk into my office and we can have a conversation — my door is always open.  What we hear from kids is mostly about what they are doing to navigate their world, their community, their parents, their relationships, their aspirations after high school. What I will say is that school is much harder academically than what it was when I was a kid. Our expectations are far beyond what I experienced as a kid with regard to academic skills, knowledge and understanding.

But in our conversations about mental health, kids aren’t all that different than adults. They are still happy, they are still sad. They need to be loved; they need to be cared for.  They need to have a voice and show an interest. They need to have people interested in them. They need to compete, they need friends and they need our support. Their ways may be different, as they are adapting to technology and social media, but they’re getting on, figuring it out and probably figuring it out faster than we adults.

On life lessons 

Q: In your career as an educator, describe one of the things you have found most fulfilling.  

Travel. I believe it can be a transformative experience.  One of the things I did at Berkley – and I need to figure out to further implement at FJA, is to give students a variety of opportunities to travel. For three years at Berkley, I took a group of 25 to 50 students to a small village in the Dominican Republic for a week to teach English in an elementary school. That week changed who those kids were in a profound way and brought them more fully to their place in the world among humanity on a larger scale.

One of the things I’m looking forward to is taking my first trip to Israel and developing my understanding of that place alongside our 2019 senior class.

Favorites

Restaurant:  Flemings

Place to meet for coffee: What’s Brewing Detroit in Rosedale Park.  Though being a transplanted New Englander, Dunkin Donuts can always do in pinch!

Family activities: Traveling – explore.  I can’t drive past an historical marker without stopping,

Favorites: New England, my home base

Place to take kids/visitors: The obvious ones, I’ve ridden my bike all over the city, to places that are touristy, and places that are strange. One of my go-to faves is John King. Books are my things.

Sports: Baseball, football, soccer

Jewish food: Falafel

Jewish Expression: Meshuggeneh

Guilty pleasures: BBC detective shows

Never leave home without: A good podcast on my cell phone

Reading now:

Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

A Colin Dexter Inspector Morse detective novel (working my way through the series)

Words for the Day

From Maimonides:  “We each decide for whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us. No one decides for us. No one drags us along one path or another. We are responsible for what we are.”

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