Katherine Ahn – Atlanta, USA

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Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Katherine Ahn explains why it is important for headteachers to foster a relationship with their students and how it can help them stay connected to the school.

Why headteacher-student relationships matter forever

Relationships in schools are crucial. I am not telling you anything you do not already know. Educators, especially IB educators, know that relationships in schools are crucial and fundamental in building a school community and identity. Going back decades, the vast majority of conversations mainly centre on the teacher-student relationship. This isn’t surprising. The teacher-student relationship is the most important one in school. But other school relationships are also important, and together, they all contribute to the IB culture. 

As an IB student, who highly valued relationships with school leaders and teachers, I was surprised how little relationships were fostered by heads of schools. Why is there so little? Why are there no mandatory workshops for IB school leaders? But digging into why is a topic for another discussion. What I do know from my own experience as a student is that genuine and positive interactions between headteachers and students are tremendously important infostering a school culture of trust and loyalty. 

MEMORY: The Class of 2016 Book Club with Mr. Holcomb, Head of High School 

In the spring semester of 2015, during my second year of secondary school, my head of high school, Mr. Holcomb created a cohort for each grade level. In the case of my grade level, there were eight of us. We casually discussed about our life narratives that pertained to our personal relationships with our parents and outside of academics. These discussions opened up a new world of connection initiated by a school leader. When I asked my head of high school the reason behind creating this cohort, he answered: 

‘’My last year at Atlanta International School (AIS) was the first year I wasn’t teaching an economics class, and quite frankly, I missed the classroom and interactions with students as these were the favourite parts of my day… the goal was to have a meaningful conversation without requiring extra reading or work”. 

I felt valued in a different way compared to how my teachers valued me. I also felt seen and heard from a head of high school compared to my school headmaster and my secondary school headmaster. 

Below are testimonials from two members of the cohort: 

“Mr Holcomb was one of the few administrators who actually bothered to learn our names/forge a sense of community. And those small meetings did make a difference in that, even just because of little things like the fact that he made us coffee and brought donuts. It just felt like more of a ‘friendship’-type relationship rather than just the usual cold student-admin relationship’’. E. Mörking, class of 2016.

“I definitely think I felt valued. I felt that I was representing the larger school population and it’s a role I enjoyed. I think the idea and intentions behind it were good and something similar could be useful to make students feel valued’’. D. Gonzalez, class of 2016.

This initiative done by my head of high school demonstrates not only the rarity for school leaders of such positions to create this effort, but how essential it is to create connections like these on an individual level. As Mr Holcomb discovered: 

“I found these times incredibly meaningful—I love discussing real life, hearing student’s stories … I always left with a better sense and empathy for where grade levels were and what they were experiencing—and I hope it helped me make better decisions”. 

Headteachers are responsible for a lot. Headteachers review test scores to find patterns and anomalies. They also run countless meetings to discuss student discipline and individualized education programmes related to what the IB expects of them. Headteachers troubleshoot carpool inefficiencies, run interferences between parents and teachers, coordinate assemblies and monitor the security of the campus. These duties, among so many others, typically make up 10 or more hours a day on campus, an additional few hours at home in the evenings and sometimes hours over the weekend. While headteachers do have a plethora of arduous tasks to accomplish, to see my head of high school initiating a relationship opened my eyes to what future educational leaders can do to foster a genuine connection, where students feel valued. 

The relationships that headteachers have with students help them stay connected to the life of the school. It helps them catch small problems before they become bigger. When headteachers know students on a personal level, they are able to understand how their decisions might impact them. In fact, if they have relationships with students, they are going to be much more willing to come to the headteacher with concerns, both personal or related to the larger student body. Existing positive relationships can also make disciplinary encounters much more effective. A headteacher’s positive relationship with students also reinforces their values to the faculty. If building meaningful student relationships does not look important to the headteacher, why should it be important to IB teachers? 

It is time to emphasize the narratives of the school leaders who prioritize student relationships and who build a relational culture within their schools. As current school administrators and as the next generation of school leaders come through, these narratives need to be included in the conversation about IB school improvement. 

Here are questions to explore: 

  1. What does the headteacher-student relationship look like? 
  2. Are the relationships limited to disciplinary or academic conversations where the headteacher serves as the last resort authoritarian or are the relationships made up of more casual, subtle and genuine interactions? 
  3. How do these relationships influence the headteacher? How do they affect the student? 
  4. How do headteacher-student relationships contribute to the school’s community of support? 
  5. How do these relationships take on different qualities depending on the socioeconomic or racial makeup of the school? Could the size of the school have an effect? 
  6. Could the relationships differ from primary and secondary schools, or could they vary solely from one headteacher to another based only on his or her personality and leadership style?
  7. How can the IB learner profile proactively fit into IB school leadership theories in schools? 

There are so many good questions about the relationship between headteachers and students, but those of us concerned with educational leadership must always remember that our school leaders work with people, not objects to be classified, categorized and risk-assessed according to rubrics of predetermined goals. 

If the students feel as if the headteacher is there for their benefit, and not just for the lucrative paycheck, then closer relationships will be born in due time. I heard many educational leaders say, “every student should be known by someone’’. Why can’t that someone be the headteacher, when the IB heavily emphasizes for their school leaders to adopt the IB learner profile into their school culture. 

Katherine Ahn is an IB graduate (Middle Years Programme (MYP)andDiploma Programme (DP)) of theAtlanta International Schoolin Atlanta, USA. She completed her bachelor of arts in linguistics and psychology at Emory University and continues to explore more about international education. Fun fact: she is a matcha latte addict and pāo de queijo (Brazilian cheese balls) lover. You can connect with her throughLinkedIn and Instagram.