At NAIS Annual Conference, Lifting Our Vision Above the Mists of Change

BALTIMORE — “Begin with the end in mind,” Stephen Covey famously wrote in his 1990 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Educators practice this habit daily, understanding intuitively that everything is created twice: First, we see it in thought, then we realize the vision in the physical world.

These days, as change rips through our institutions and continuously reshapes our world, we must keep adapting and lifting our vision higher. This rang true as I joined about 5,700 participants to explore the theme “Make Your Mission Matter: From Vision to Values” at the NAIS Annual Conference March 1–3.

In the city where Francis Scott Key wrote the immortal, wartime words, “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light,” I witnessed five interconnected areas of re-envisioning, lighting the way to improve our schools, our relationships, and ourselves.

Five Rays of Progress

Education. Personalized education nourishes students’ individual talents and interests and attends to natural learning rhythms, said Sir Ken Robinson, who authored Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education and delivered the No. 1 TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” The standardized system has failed students, demeaned teachers, frustrated administrators, irritated employers, and exasperated parents, he said. Nonetheless, education testing is a $16 billion business in the U.S., Robinson pointed out. Can you imagine what we could do in America with those resources? he asked, then offered a few ideas: professional development, cultural programs, liaising with the broader community.

We ought to focus on creating school cultures where learning can flourish, Robinson said. He referenced the work NAIS is doing in its Innovation Kitchen. At the conference, the kitchen was an open community space where independent school educators were welcomed to learn about innovation as a mountain journey and read examples of schools engaged in student-centered learning. Many attendees shared their own stories on camera.


Robinson also outlined the aims of education as he sees them: to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.

Talent. Over and over it echoed: We can do a better job developing talent — of youth, teachers, and leaders. Onaje X.O. Woodbine, now a teacher of philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy (MA) and author of Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, was the leading scorer on Yale University’s basketball team in college. But he wanted to follow his heart and study philosophy and religion. “The simple decision to leave the team was subversive,” he said, describing a racist letter he received from a white assistant coach. He said Woodbine’s choice could adversely impact the admission prospects of future recruits and called him selfish. “The letter hit me like a sledgehammer,” Woodbine recalled.

To understand why African-Americans were seen only as athletes, Woodbine returned to the streets where he played basketball. There he discovered certain truths: Sport was an extension of our lives where we could tell our stories, express grief, and generate hope. “We go to the court to demonstrate our humanity,” he exhorted the audience.

Woodbine closed with three realizations: Sports are fraught with inequity, we need to use these spaces for social change and racial healing, and we can all become who we want to be.

For his part, Robinson described how vital the relationship is between student and teacher toward talent development. To further cultivate students’ talent, he said, we need to rethink dividing curriculum by subjects and separating students by age because the real world doesn’t operate in those silos. Talent is holistic.

Nurturing faculty talent was the focus of the session “The Question Is the Answer: Inspire Authentic Teacher Growth Through Feedback Conversations,” given by Lana Shea from St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (VA) and Meredith Monk Ford of FolioCollaborative.

First, it’s critical to reframe faculty evaluations as two-way feedback conversations. In the activity chalk talk, each of us silently wrote how we found five areas relevant to our schools and how we’re fostering them:

  • effective conversation,
  • actionable feedback,
  • risk taking,
  • meaningful reflection, and
  • growth mindset.

Next, Shea and Ford discussed how questions can deepen and strengthen faculty relationships. Asking the right questions helps us step back; notice what others miss; challenge assumptions (including our own); gain a deeper understanding of the situation or problem at hand through contextual inquiry; and take ownership, they noted.

Question-storming should begin with Why? then What if? then How? to reach a solution, they said. Why helps investigate the reason the problem exists. What-if questions open new possibilities from a hypothetical standpoint. How helps put ideas into action.

As Warren Berger underscored in his book A More Beautiful Question, “The point, after all, is not to question endlessly, but to use questions as a means of steadily advancing toward an answer.”

Communication. We’re sharpening our techniques to better convey information to learners. In the session “Translating the Brain: How to Actually Use Research About Neuroscience in the Classroom,” Cynthia Belnomi of Indian Creek School (MD) noted how integrated the five senses are. Moreover, smell is connected to our emotions and memories. She suggested that teachers develop multisensory learning experiences. However, the most dominant sense is vision, she said, adding that we tend to learn best through pictures.

To that end, PowerPoint slides are most effective when pictures and words appear simultaneously, not successively, and don’t include extraneous material, Belnomi said. When using animation, images paired with a voice recording are preferable to displaying text on screen.

The one-hour PechaKucha sessions demonstrated these principles. To prepare, each speaker created 20 slides that automatically advance every 20 seconds. Each slide was simple, elegant. In these six minutes and 40 seconds, a speaker couldn’t go back or pause. I wondered, “Are they all going to be able to pull this off?” Sure enough, everyone did — beautifully. It was just as host and award-winning public speaker Eddie Selover said as he kicked things off: “When you force people to condense, cut, and hone, all that’s left is the poetry.”

Well-being. A panel of higher education experts, including Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Baltimore Shelia Higgs Burkhalter, Executive Director of ACPA — College Student Educators International Cindi Love, President of the Student Affairs Association of Higher Education Kevin Kruger, and Assistant Vice President Division of Student Affairs at Duke University Zoila Airall, discussed keeping students healthy and well.

Fundamentally, four needs must be met for mental health, according to Love: unconditional positive support from at least one adult; opportunities for expression; new experiences; and limits and boundaries that youth internally choose and externally model.

Intentional parenting in these four areas and employing Angela Duckworth’s “hard rule” could help. The hard rule includes choosing something to do or be that takes practice to achieve, that requires us to accept and internalize feedback, and that we can’t quit.

In his session, Schuyler Bailar, a sophomore swimmer at Harvard University, exemplified these characteristics as he articulated his journey to become the first transgender student to compete in any sport on a Division I men’s team. Growing up, he was a competitive swimmer but struggled with an eating disorder and depression. After graduating from Georgetown Day School (DC), he deferred his admission to Harvard and checked into a treatment center. There for the first time, he came forward as transgender.

Soon after, he began to make the physical transition from female to male with the full support of his parents and recruiting coach. The women’s coach conferred with the university’s men’s coach, who offered Bailar a spot on his team. “I burst into tears from sheer terror and pain,” Bailar recalled. As he agonized over what to do, he realized he couldn’t be “a boy in school and a girl in the pool.” He had to be himself — and found support all around him. The men’s captains brainstormed ways to make him comfortable; his new coach shared his cellphone number and offered his office as a changing room if he wanted it.

Today, Bailar is most passionate about swimming and speaking about his background to groups like ours, he said.

Power. The link between vulnerability and courage is inextricable, said BrenĂ© Brown, author of three No. 1 New York Times best sellers, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong, as well as the TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” A research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, she described earning her worst evaluations from students after a hurricane devastated the area and the school was reopened too soon. Brown “went total angry villager” and “was her worst self,” as she put it, because of “how I was showing up.” It was a powerful reminder that our knowledge pales next to who we are in the classroom, she said. This takes courage.

And courage’s foundation is vulnerability. “We’re not wired for vulnerability but [it’s] the birthplace of love, belonging, and joy,” Brown said. Two things will require vulnerability in independent schools: teaching students hope and tackling privilege (the access to things not earned) vs. entitlement (an expectation of privilege). What mitigates entitlement is gratitude and a full understanding of privilege, she said.

Brown closed with gratitude for the educators in the room. “Ten years from now in an interview, they will bring you up,” she said. “They’ll say they didn’t believe in themselves, and you changed that.”

Let Us Hear from You

What is your vision for yourself, for your school, for education? You can read about mine on my blog on NAIS Connect. Share yours in the comments below or email us at

Ari Pinkus
Ari Pinkus

Ari Pinkus is digital editor and producer at NAIS.

03/14/2017 03:21 PM
Really nice summary of so much of the conference. Thanks!

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