There’s a colourful Yiddish word that we don’t hear enough of in education and it is ‘chutzpah’.
This basically translates as audacity and can be negative or positive.
In a negative sense it means having nerve, sheer gall or insolence.
It can mean being rude or displaying disrespectful behaviour and being impertinent. It is unmitigated effrontery or impudence.
An example of chutzpah, appears in the Indian film Haider, where a bank robber who steals money from the bank and then asks the bank to open an account so he can deposit the stolen money.
It is also characterised by a disregard for manners, social conventions, and the feelings and opinions of others. Take a look at this article by Rabbi Dr. Feuerman for a further elaboration!
But when used positively it implies having bottle, guts, pluck and mettle. It can mean being confident and being willing to take risks. It’s about being adventurous, daring, intrepid and brave.
Chutzpah has been used to identify people with courage who take on situations that others avoid and somehow achieve the impossible. They have irrepressible strength and irresistible boldness.
Some school leaders, those who are far-sighted, dare to be bold. They break the established rules and create something better with the force of their conviction.
During the pandemic, teachers and school leaders have had to display this sort of positive chutzpah by turning up, stepping up to the plate, speaking out, defending children, championing life, showing courage and making a stand.
Headmaster Mike Fairclough has done this in relation to the controversial Covid-19 vaccination of 12-15 year olds in England. He has doggedly stood up for children’s health and safety by arguing that vaccinating healthy children against Covid is unnecessary and unethical.
Mike is a great example of someone with positive chutzpah, integrity, values, courage and principles.
We can learn a lot from principled leaders with positive chutzpah. They are genuine people, unafraid to show their feelings and passions to others and they don’t make a habit of acquiescing to popular opinion.
Principles are to leaders what roots are to trees. Without substantial roots, trees will be easily toppled by winds and without principles, leaders lose respect and ‘fall’ when they are shaken by a school gale or a windy national debate.
To stand tall leaders need to be principle-based and they need courage to maintain faith in their beliefs and doing the right thing. Moral courage is the driving force behind chutzpah. Its a cosmic attitude with a sense of purpose.
To be an educator, you’ve always had to have plenty of intellectual and personal positive chutzpah and the pandemic has embedded this as a sine qua non.
A chutzpahnik is a person manifesting the quality of chutzpah and is someone who is assertive, demands what is due, defies tradition, challenges authority and raises eyebrows (Alan M. Dershowitz, 1992).
In a school, chutzpah is not an individual enterprise but a collective responsibility and project nurtured by a positive culture and sustained by an invested community.
We, as leaders in education, must use chutzpah to make positive change and long-term gains for students and the teaching profession.