04/28/2024 by Michael Truesdell |

The Role of the President/Head of School in Strengthening Student Engagement

In the heart of leadership, our mission goes far beyond the boardroom. As a consultant trusted to guide the appointment of leaders in esteemed institutions, I've discovered the immeasurable value of strengthening student engagement. Serving as a president in the president/principal model for over two decades, I've also had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the transformative power of direct interaction with students. While the president or head of school’s role may seem distant from the day-to-day experiences of students, there are creative and meaningful ways to bridge that gap.

Engaging with students not only enriches their educational journey, but also deepens your connection to the advocacy for students with external stakeholders. Strengthening student engagement is a bit of an art, and it can have a profound impact on both leaders and the vibrant communities they serve.

The Value of Direct Student Interaction

In my 25 years of serving as a President in Catholic high school leadership, one aspect that stands out is the value of direct student interaction. Transitioning from the corporate world to the academic realm, I found immense joy in engaging with students when I took on a teaching role. This direct interaction provided a unique perspective and offered a sense of fulfillment that I had not experienced before. These connections, forged through direct student engagement, extend beyond the present and into the future.

By being an active and approachable leader, you’re setting an example of what it means to be a compassionate and dedicated adult, while also inspiring students to emulate those qualities in their own lives. As you continue to connect with future generations of students, the impact of these relationships ripples out, leaving a lasting legacy of mentorship, guidance, and positive influence that shapes the leaders of tomorrow. What more could we ask for?

Overcoming Scheduling Challenges

While the desire to connect with students is strong, the demanding schedule of a President/Head of School can often make it challenging to find time for direct engagement in the classroom. Accreditation requirements and various responsibilities may limit your teaching involvement, but there are alternative ways to bridge the gap.

One effective approach for school leaders, is to explore unconventional avenues for student engagement. You might consider volunteering to moderate a debate club, where you can actively participate in intellectual discussions with students. You could also serve as a chaperone for a Model United Nations weekend assembly, or other out-of-school events. These occasions are sure to offer valuable student interaction and can create lasting memories. My own experience chaperoning such an event at Stanford University, even on my wife's birthday weekend, was incredibly rewarding. We shared such joy with our school community and when you connect on that personal level, celebrating milestones together, student engagement goes through the roof.

Another meaningful way to connect with students is by volunteering to assist with retreats or off-campus field trips. These activities offer a unique opportunity to engage with students on a deeper level and share in their journeys beyond the classroom walls. My involvement in four different Kairos Retreats left me inspired and enriched by the profound connections forged during these experiences. I highly recommend this to anyone in a president/head of school role.

Advantages of Student Engagement for School Leaders

Engaging with students in these diverse capacities enhances your own sense of fulfillment. Additionally, it supports your credibility when advocating for students with various external audiences. As a trusted leader, personal connections display commitment to the students and the institution's mission, strengthening the bond between leadership and the student body.

By exploring these unique avenues for engagement, you can contribute to the holistic development of the students and foster a deeper sense of community within the school, not only enriching students’ educational experience but also leaving a lasting impact on their lives.

Mike Truesdell is a Senior Consultant with our Catholic Schools Practice and also works on consulting projects with schools. From senior leadership positions in both education and business, Mike has successfully invigorated strategic planning, guided fundraising and financing, as well as implemented both governance board and senior organizational restructuring.

Before joining CS&A, Mike served as the President and CEO of Holy Cross High School (NY), President and CEO of St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy (OH), and President and CEO of Cardinal Newman High School (CA).

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