03/11/2020 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

School Excellence in a Time of Change: Report from the 2020 NAIS Conference

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Most years at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, a trend emerges as a major concern for the independent school community. This year, taking place February 26-28 in Philadelphia, a central focus was on the varied strands of anxiety tying knots in the larger culture and impacting all aspect of school life, including leadership, operations, classroom management, student well-being, school communications, DEI work, and more. Anxiety was even evident in the conference itself where many heads of school paced the hallways talking to colleagues at their schools about COVID-19 (coronavirus), which was just starting to show up in the U.S. at the time. In fact, as educators were arriving for the conference in Philadelphia, NAIS had put together a last-minute session to address the virus and its expected impact on schools.

A number of keynote speakers also addressed the growing problem of student anxiety. This conversation began with the opening keynote speaker, Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University and co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” Haidt began by pointing out that Gen-Z, the current cohort of high school and college-age students, are in “really bad shape,” mostly due to the rise of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. He put much of the blame on social media — especially the developments circa 2009 of Facebook’s “like” button and Twitter’s “retweet” button, both of which tend to amplify anxiety, especially among girls. But he also put some blame on over-protective parenting and on how schools teach social-emotional development and approach diversity matters.

Regarding student technology use, among Haidt’s suggestions are more restrictive family and school policies on access to cellphones, including keeping kids off social media in middle school. Parallel to this, he argued, should be a greater emphasis not just on building resiliency in students but on raising and educating students to be “anti-fragile.” Haidt drew criticism from some in the audience for arguing against what he called the “common enemy” approach to identity development — which he described as the tendency to focus on matters such as privilege, white supremacy, implicit bias, microaggressions, and the like. In contrast, he encouraged schools to take a “common humanity” approach, focused on love, humility, and forgiveness. In making this point, he singled out anti-bias training in many schools and colleges as ineffective in their goals.

Student anxiety was front and center in other sessions as well. Workshops focused on classroom teachers responding to student psychological distress; helping students build healthy sexual relations; creating more time for play; updating the advisory program to include more social-emotional and executive function support; giving students greater agency in their education journey; creating opportunities for civic engagement; valuing risk-taking in the learning process; and otherwise building grittier students.

A number of sessions examined crisis management issues in school — including how schools deal with the rise of student anxiety, navigate major cultural divides, prevent (or prevail in) litigation with difficult parents, develop effective crisis-communications plans, and even how to respond to a shooter on campus. One session explored the way schools must often deal directly with broader cultural tensions that find their way into the school community.

In contrast to Haidt’s remarks regarding DEI efforts in schools were numerous sessions that emphasized culturally responsive teaching and leadership, encouraged the hiring and retaining of more administrators and teachers of color, and centered the experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized students and families.

Meanwhile, a core group of workshops stayed focus on effective and sustainable leadership, teacher professional development, best board practices, and other key elements of successful schools. Many such sessions were coming at these perennial topics from new angles. One that caught our eye had the provocative title, “Three Reasons to Replace Department Chairs with Instructional Coaches.” Presenter Brad Rathegeber, head at One Schoolhouse, an online independent school, made it clear that he was being provocative with the title, but he nevertheless argued for such a shift in faculty leadership and culture. At the core of his argument is the value of and need for high quality instructional coaches who work regularly with faculty to improve the quality of teaching week to week, year to year. Coaching, he said, boils down to “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.” Along with outlining One Schoolhouse’s approach to coaching, Rathegeber referenced Digital Promise’s article on teacher coaching, “Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Coaching in Education.”

For schools anxious about their futures there were also a few sessions on transforming schools from those that hang on financially year to year to schools that thrive in the modern landscape. An example that impressed us is Westover School (CT), which made a single paradigm shift in the school’s narrative about itself — from “school as family” to “school as community” — as a key to transform the school from one struggling to stay afloat into a thriving school with a growing in reputation.

Taking a broader approach to healthy schools, John Gulla, executive director of the E.E. Ford Foundation, led a session focused on leadership challenges at schools in an age of constant change. In it, he highlighted school elements that support the sustainable health of schools, as well as those that undermine it.

Perhaps most telling, for us, were the sessions run by the up-and-coming leaders — those enrolled in the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads program. Sessions, led by a group of program cohorts, focused on supporting women in the leadership pipeline; making the transition from upper level leadership to headship; and how school cultures can be established to set up new heads for success. Simultaneously, other fellows-led sessions focused on the business of running schools well — from high-functioning boards, to a reexamination of non-need-based financial aid, to supporting Latinx families, to the role of compensation and benefits in recruiting and retaining faculty.

A few sessions near to our heart focused on the essential need for more women and people of color in leadership positions in school, especially in the headship role. One of these sessions, “A Golden Moment for Women’s Leaders in Schools,” was co-led by a Carney, Sandoe & Associates’ team of search consultants Ann Teaff, Bill Christ, and Karen Whitaker and had over 100 women in attendance from schools across the country, including coeducational and all-boys schools. The session was also led by Kim Field-Marvin, Head of Louise McGehee School (LA); Wanda Holland Greene, Head of The Hamlin School (CA); and Marcia Spiller, Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Life at Woodward Academy (GA). The session made it clear that the low percentages of women heads and heads of color is not a pipeline issue. There are plenty of candidates — and more are being coached, mentored, and sponsored for leadership. A key issue remains bias in the headship hiring process.

Fellow CS&A search consultant Marsha Little also presented at the conference. Her session, “Disruptive Development: Coaching as a Tool for Culture Change” with Teddi Bair and Stacia McFadden from The Lovett School (GA), examined Lovett's use of instructional coaching as a springboard to shift school culture around how both teachers and leaders grow. At Lovett, the concept quickly moved from the seed of an idea to a full-fledged coaching program.

The bottom line: Uncertain times call for greater skills and agility in schools. The deep concern for the children of the future and how to educate them well to address world challenges was clearly evident at the NAIS conference — along with many local solutions and programs that lead our community in the right direction.

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