03/19/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Reflections on the 2019 NAIS Conference

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As always, it was deeply satisfying to offer one of our annual hiring conferences in parallel with the NAIS Annual Conference — this year in (mostly) sunny Long Beach, California. While we spent the majority of our time connecting talented teacher and administrator candidates with our partner schools, we did find time to explore the NAIS conference itself — as a way to meet up with educators we know and admire and to check in on the national conversation on independent education.

What struck us about this year’s event was the evidence of an important new educational landscape taking shape.

Of course, it was a joy to listen to the opening keynote address by the amazing Viola Davis — the first African-American actor to win a Tony, Oscar, and Emmy. In her remarks, Davis recounted, among other things, her harrowing childhood of poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and how education and an amazing reservoir of grit propelled her to a better life.

We were equally impressed by other keynoters and featured speakers as well, especially Shiza Shahid, co-founder of the Malala Fund, who, with Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, has led an effective global effort for high-quality education for all children. We also appreciated hearing Simon Sinek, best-selling author and consultant on all things organizational, outline his theories on leadership for the long haul — the focus on constant growth, improvement, and momentum for both institutional and individual fulfillment. We liked, too, that he said, “The responsibility of school leaders is to take care of the people who take care of the children.”

But the sessions that hewed closely to the daily work of schools stood out the most for us. Among the session themes that caught our eye:

21st-Century Skills

A number of sessions sharpened the focus on what schools mean by teaching for 21st-century skills such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and cultural competency. Every school we admire embraces the balance between academic knowledge and these essential life and work skills, but it’s good to see schools asking deeper questions about how these skills are instilled. One session highlighted a recent pilot project by the California Association of Independent Schools to measure outcomes in these efforts. The results to date are promising. We have no doubt that schools will only gain greater clarity in the coming years about what an effective, balanced education looks like.

Student Wellness

So many sessions touched on the need to look carefully at the question of student wellness. They included a focus on research that examines the impact, individually and collectively, of homework, extracurricular activities, and hours of sleep on student well-being and academic success. Among the featured sessions, one focused on valuable lessons schools can glean from the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and its aftermath. Another session we attended explored the ways schools and parents can better defend healthy adolescent development in highly competitive schools.

One presenter, Denise Pope from Stanford University, outlined the SPACE framework established by educator Linda Darling Hammond designed to help students thrive academically, physically, and emotionally. In shaping or re-shaping their programs, Pope said, schools should consider:

S — Student use of time, in and out of class.

P — Project-based learning relevant to student interest and skill level.

A — Authentic formative assessment designed to encourage growth.

C — A climate of care designed for enable positive experiences all around.

E — Education for the whole community — parents, students, and faculty.

International Education

The remarkable growth of the international school community is having an increasingly important impact on schools stateside. On the one hand, schools everywhere are examining what we mean by educating for global citizenship — in terms of both the curriculum and extracurricular programming. On the other hand, they are also examining ways to collaborate with schools globally so they can learn and support each other and extend their missions to the international community. (See note above about the Malala Fund.)

The Leadership Pipeline

This is a topic near and dear to us, so it was reaffirming to see sessions that focused not only on the urgent need for more women and people of color in leadership positions but also on how to achieve greater equity at the top. There were also many related sessions on the qualities school leaders need for success in the changing cultural landscape today. In addition, the conference offered what it described as “Fellowship Workshops,” sessions led by educators enrolled in the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads program. Not only were these excellent, data-driven sessions, they also offered clear evidence of a talented group of future school leaders.

Cultural Competency

It used to be that issues related to diversity and inclusion in schools took a backseat to other topics at the conference. Not any more. Numerous sessions explored to need for school leaders and educators to better understand their own identities in order lead and teach well across gender, race, socioeconomic, and other differences.

Professional Growth

One of our favorite sessions this year focused on instructional coaching. Lead by Lori Cohen, from The Bay School of San Francisco, and Lisa Haney, from the California Teacher Development Collaborative, this session outlined the ways in which ongoing instructional coaching leads to improved teaching and learning practices and fosters a shared mindset of growth among the faculty. As Lori Cohen put it, “Coaching is at the center of reimagining our schools.”

Other related sessions looked at everything from orienting new faculty to developing more teacher collaboration to learning the art of engaging in critical conversations.

The Future of School

As always there are too many quality sessions to highlight here. But suffice it to say that most of the workshops we attended underscored the changing education landscape. More than a few sessions examined financial matters and new revenue streams. Others took their lead from new developments in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) Science and how it applies to the classroom and overall program. Still others re-examined how we think about and approach strategic planning.

Overall, we noticed that schools are far more data-focused than in years past. Some of the data come from outside sources, but schools are also gathering their own data in an effort to gain greater clarity on the best next steps for their communities — data that can help them improve on every level.

When we think about the core work we do — to find the right institutional match for great teachers and administrators, on the one hand, and to support school leaders in their leadership journeys, on the other — it’s so heartening to see the broader independent school community evolving in such impressive ways.

It speaks volumes for the community — where we are today and where we’re headed tomorrow.

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