What is the role of the IB Head of School? (updated from 2013)

One of the first posts that I published all the way back in 2013 was written in the hotel lobby of the IB Conference of the Americas in New Orleans, LA. The focus of the piece was on the role of the IB Head of School, and my plan at that time was to maintain a blog that would attempt to answer some “essential questions” in education, particularly as they related to the IB program. Fast forward almost seven years and a lot has changed. Seven years is a long time, both personally and professionally, and my views have certainly developed, changed in some instances, and of course raised more questions in others. I’ve always viewed this blog as a place to flesh out and articulate my thoughts around many issues, and it has also been an invaluable tool for communicating these ideas with our school community. I admit that I do check out the blog statistics from time to time to get a sense of the posts that seem to continually get the most “views,” and am surprised at certain posts that either get or do not get lots of activity. The post “Why IB?” in 2013, for example, had over 1,500 views in a day, which was a surprise because I remember writing it as a small piece to get some much needed buy-in within our small community. I never imagined it would take off that day as it had. The same continues to happen with the short three paragraph post that I wrote on the “role of the IB Head of School,” which still gets around 20 views a day on average.  

To be honest, I knew very little about being an IB Head of School when I wrote that post in 2013. I was finishing my second year in the role, I was still getting my footing as a principal and a school leader, and the IB DP at our school was on the cusp of massive changes that would occur over the next several years. All of that has been well documented in this blog. Over the years, our school has hosted many site visits for the IB DP and now the IB MYP, and I often find myself discussing with principals what their role is as the IB Head of School. I generally find  that principals fall into one of two camps with regard to this question: they either don’t see themselves as being involved with the IB Program and leave the work to their IB Coordinator or they find themselves overly involved in the logistics of the program and fail to grasp that their role as a Head of School is a critical piece (I stress the word piece!) of a much larger puzzle that is needed for success. So after doing this for awhile now, I thought I’d take another look at this question and offer some clearly defined responsibilities of the IB Head of School:  

Communicate the Vision: Above all else, the role of the IB Head of School is to communicate the vision of the program with the school community and to set the course for all of the work that needs to occur in this regard. The Head of School is essentially the public “face” of the program, and is the person who speaks with parents and community members, articulates the vision and mission of the IB, presents the big ideas and objectives, inspires others, and generates excitement and enthusiasm for the program. This is especially important for schools that offer both IB and AP programs as well as other academic programs that might compete. This situation, while common, provides its own set of challenges for the IB Head of School and can often result in different people heading in different directions without a common vision. Regardless of the set up, however, the IB Head of School serves as the instructional leader from a big picture perspective and needs to provide clarity of purpose and a singular vision for a school. 

Build a Strong Team: In order for an IB Head of School to truly do what is needed from a big picture perspective, it is critical that a strong team is in place to handle each of the roles in the IB hierarchy. I’ve written time and again on the importance of the IB Coordinators and the necessity of having individuals in these positions who are smart, organized, detail oriented, and in support of the vision and mission of the program. There is absolutely no room for a weak link when it comes to the coordinators for either the IB DP, MYP, CAS, or EE. At DFHS, we have exceptional individuals in each of these positions and they are the ones who essentially “run” the nuts and bolts of the program on a day-to-day basis. The same holds true for a school’s IB Administrator, IB secretary, department leaders, and of course teachers. As a Head of School, I work closely with all of these individuals respectively and completely empower them to run their aspect of the program without any micromanaging from me. 

Maximize Resources: A key responsibility of the IB Head of School is to find ways (sometimes creatively!) to offer an IB Program that is robust in terms of offerings and is differentiated based on the interests and abilities of all students. This is especially the case with the IB Diploma Program. In its best form, the IB DP should provide an array of Standard Level and Higher Level options for students so that there are multiple pathways for students to acquire the full IB diploma. This is a challenge at a small school like ours so it has required us to maximize what we offer based on the strengths of our teachers, our IB budget, professional development needs, the courses that will generate the greatest number of student interest, and an overall academic program that supports “IB for All” starting in grade 11.

Professional Development: Ensuring that coordinators, faculty, and staff receive ongoing and current professional development is a given for any IB Head of School. In this regard, the Head of School must work closely with the IB Coordinators to identify teachers who are in need of formal IB training and/or who need to be re-trained based on changes to each respective subject area. In order to achieve the singular vision discussed above, it must be a priority that all faculty members receive IB training. Beyond IB training, all professional development and curriculum work at the school-level needs to be connected to an aspect of the IB Program to further support the idea of a clear and singular vision for all. Finally, the IB Head of School must also be dedicated to his/her own professional growth beyond the initial IB Administrator training that all heads are required to attend. The IBO now offers a series of different workshops that directly emphasize a specific aspect of IB leadership. Learning needs to be ongoing for everyone, and the Head of School is responsible for modeling this behavior for the entire school community. 

Communicate and Celebrate: Perhaps the best way to build excitement and support of the IB Program is to find opportunities to share what is happening with the school community and, if possible, the whole world. Social media makes this easy, and this blog is evidence of that. An IB Head of School needs to have an active presence on social media, a school-wide hashtag (#DFHSIB21), and a school Facebook page that celebrates the work of staff and students. There was a time when this concept was progressive. Now it’s just basic. So if a Head of School is not ensuring that this is happening, well I’m not sure what to say. In addition, the Head of School should take opportunities to present at IB conferences and invite faculty members to join these presentations. Our school presents annually at the IB World Conference and we often invite teachers to join when the topic is based on their work inside of the classroom. This approach is great for morale, bolsters the profile of a school, rewards teachers and students, and generates more buy-in within a school community. Again, this is pretty simple and common sense stuff. 

While the focus of this piece has been on the role of the IB Head of School, it should be noted that many of the ideas discussed can certainly apply to any building principal or school leader. Having a clear vision, strong communication, a commitment to ongoing professional development, and developing a team of empowered leaders are fundamental concepts for a leader in any role. In order to achieve this, leaders need to actively demonstrate those same IB Learner qualities that we work to instill in our students. We never stop learning, we never stop reflecting, and we never stop growing. Please feel free to share any other aspects of leadership that in the comments section below so that we can continue to learn, reflect, and grow together.


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