The Power of Presence: Leading in Your School Community

School principal speaking with a student

In the independent school universe, May is a busy month, but it’s also a time for school leaders to reflect on the year that’s (almost) ending. Did you reach your leadership goals that you set when school started? How would you assess your strengths and areas for improvement this year? 

I would argue that one of the most important decisions a head of school can make is to be present in their school community by interacting regularly, authentically and intentionally with students.  When students see you—and know that you see them—it can transform your school. 

In my work for Kalix, I travel around the country and meet school heads. It’s one of the perks of my job: watching exceptional leaders engage with students, faculty, staff and trustees. As an end-of-year “case study,” if you will, I present four examples of real-life school leaders. I didn’t use names, but each has created a unique leadership style that resonates with their students and school community.   

Leader A: This now-retired K-8 head of school spent every morning at his school’s front door, greeting each student by name, looking them in the eye, asking how they were doing and wishing them a good day. The fact that he did this every morning for over 20 years signified the importance he gave this morning ritual. Not only was it an important part of his leadership style, but it also set the tone for his school’s approach to working with and teaching younger students the importance of a morning greeting and looking an adult in the eye when offering a greeting. 

Leader B: The president of this large, Baltimore-area university made the decision to spend the first year of his presidency (along with his wife) living in one of the university’s new dorms. Few leaders would entertain such a decision. Not only does he live with his students, but he and his wife make it a practice to eat in the dining hall on a regular basis to engage in conversation with students. When I asked him if he thought any of his contemporaries in the University of Maryland System (let alone other schools across the country) were also living in a dorm, he said probably not. I can’t think of a better way to build relationships with your students. He’s getting a first-hand look and true working knowledge of how his students live and thrive on campus. And he’s gaining a genuine reputation for being approachable and accessible, qualities school leaders need.  

– Jonathan Oleisky

Leader C: This president of a large, coed, Catholic high school makes it his business to learn the names of all incoming freshmen before school starts. The fact that he greets them by name throughout the year has made an incredible impact on his students. Earlier this spring, I was on campus to meet with this school’s students. A junior recalled how the president spoke to him by name during the young man’s first semester. It made the student feel important and that he belonged, which is one of the most important “heartstring” objectives a school leader can achieve: creating an authentic sense of community. Several years ago, this same president championed a freshman seminar to inculcate all incoming students into the school’s culture and academic/community expectations. To lessen the course load for faculty, the senior leadership team decided to teach the seminar. The president teaches several times each week and has for the past few years. When he speaks about it, his joy is palpable. He began his career as a classroom teacher and understands the importance of connecting with students in the classroom. 

Leader D: The now-retired president of a prestigious New England liberal arts school had weekly office hours set aside to meet with students to learn what was on their minds and how he could offer advice and insights. All a student needed to do was email the president’s administrative assistant to schedule a time and let the president know what the topic of conversation was going to be. Many students ended up scheduling follow-up visits or engaging in an ongoing email conversation with the president. This might be the ultimate example of student access. 

As you look back on your year, ask yourself, “What am I currently doing, or what will I do, to engage in meaningful, memorable ways with my students?” Consider how you can make a powerful impact in your school community. 

This is your opportunity. Make it a priority for the 2024-25 school year by making a commitment to put it on your calendar. Schedule times to greet students in carpool or in the halls between classes, not just when your (understandably) packed schedule allows. Plan to eat in the dining hall a few times a week with students. How can you get back into the classroom, even if just for a few times a semester? 

Get creative and don’t worry about breaking norms. The great leaders I’ve met know that it is always about putting your students first. 

Interested in scheduling a chat? I’m always open to brainstorming ideas with school leaders and staff. Contact me here.

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

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