Friends Says “Ya Habibi” to the Queen of Bling

Rasha El-Haggan, our new Assistant Head of School for Academics, has a serious mandate. But she tackles it with a sense of fun – and style.
Rasha El-Haggan, Friends Schools new Assistant Head of School for Academics, sits in her office, surrounded by sparkles.
Rasha El-Haggan, Friends School’s new Assistant Head of School for Academics, sits in her office, surrounded by sparkles.
Quill staff

This year, you might have noticed more sparkle on campus. It is coming from Rasha El-Haggan (pronounced like Russia the country), Friends School’s new Assistant Head of School for Academics . 

El-Haggan’s office in the Middle School building is packed with shiny things: teal sequined pillows; rainbow sequined stuffies; a tissue box, pencil holder, stapler, and tape dispenser decorated with rhinestones and purple glitter; and a dish of gold-wrapped candy.

But it doesn’t stop there. Her backpack is teal-and-purple sequined, her water bottle is covered in rhinestones, her glasses twinkle with multicolored stones, and her colorful headscarves are held in place with an array of sparkly pins.

“Bling is my thing,” she told the Upper School, in a Collection presentation introducing herself to her new community in January. Later in her talk, the Muslim-American administrator introduced students to the Arabic greeting “ya habibi,” which means “my dear” (in either a friendly or a romantic sense). Students practiced their new phrase by singing along with a popular rap.

But for all her fun and playfulness, El-Haggan has a serious role here at Friends.

Her job is so important that, for many years while the position was empty, the school put major decisions on hold. Her mission is largely to oversee and support the preschool through 12th grade teaching and learning program. 

Sparkles abound in El-Haggan’s office in the Middle School building. (Quill staff)

“So, everything that happens in the classroom from what teachers do, how they do it, policies around students, grading, assessments, writing our curriculum,” she explains. “What curriculum are we going to teach? How are we going to do everything that has to do with teaching and learning? How do we support students’ learning? How do we support students’ mental health? How do we teach in Quakerism? All of those things.”

El-Haggan has lots of experience in education. She started teaching in 2006, as a middle school English teacher. Since then, she has been teaching and working as an administrator, in the US and internationally, in both public and independent schools.

In 2014, she helped to found Tarbiyah Academy, a K-6th grade Islamic private school in Howard County. As its founding head, El-Haggan had heavy responsibilities, and it was hard to find balance.

A turning point for her was the day she got a call from her doctor, asking for a dentist appointment for her child. During her time as Head of School at Tarbiyah, El-Haggan had asked her sister to help with her kids’ appointments.

“I already did her appointment last week,” her sister told her.

The moment was a wake-up call. El-Haggan realized that she had been putting so much time and effort into her job that it left little time for her personal life.

“I had no idea. And I was like, ‘Wait, this is crazy, right? I don’t know anything about my children right now in these four years that I was head,’ ” she says. “And so I made a decision that I really needed a new job.” 

El-Haggan wanted a place where she felt like she belonged – and also a place for her son, who was entering 8th grade at the time. In her search, she discovered Sandy Spring Friends School.

“It was an amazing community and amazing opportunity,” she says. “So that’s how I found Quaker schools.”

After working at Sandy Spring Friends for five years as Upper School Academic Dean, and later as Director of Curriculum and Professional Growth, El-Haggan came here to Friends School of Baltimore this past fall. 

I’m confident she will inspire our teachers – who are already doing great things – to be even better.

— Brandon Rogers

So far as the Quill can determine, she is the first Muslim administrator in the school’s history. Along with Upper School History teacher Shahid Khan, she also co-advises the Muslim Student Union (MSU), founded this year.

One of the student group’s first projects was to convince Head of School Christian Donovan to add a day off to next year’s school calendar, for the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that ends the month of Ramadan. The school has long had days off for major Christian and Jewish holidays like Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Ejaz Ibrahim, one of the MSU club heads, says having an all-school day off for Eid will mean he doesn’t have to miss class, or be left out of other school activities, to practice his faith. In past years, he says, he has come back to school after the holiday feeling behind, or left out of a school experience.

“Last year, it was only Earth Day that I missed, but it was kind of unfortunate, because Earth Day is a day I look forward to every year,” he says.

Student advocates championed the project, and made the case for new day off to Head of School Christian Donovan, who deliberated before announcing the change last week.

El-Haggan says she admires the students’ advocacy for this change – and any other change that makes the school more equitable.

Meanwhile, from supporting student and staff conversations around Israel and Gaza, to choosing new furniture for the Lower School, to leading professional development for teachers in all three divisions, El-Haggan has had a busy first year.

Another new administrator, Upper School Head Brandon Rogers, says she has a lot to teach this community.

“I’ve been involved in many meetings and discussions with Rasha about her ideas and visions for Friends School,” he says. “I’m confident she will inspire our teachers – who are already doing great things – to be even better.”

As our Assistant Head of Academics, El-Haggan will undoubtedly change and push Friends. And she will shine while doing it.

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