Reimagining Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, and Designing Our Future

Alfred (Rik) F. Dugan III, headmaster at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart (NJ), grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a maritime fishing community off the north shore of Boston. It was only natural for him to board a two-masted schooner—part of an experiential learning activity offered in San Pedro Bay, off the coast of California—to kick off the 2019 NAIS Annual Conference.

There is more to gain by sailing a ship than in almost anything else I know,” he writes. Here is what he learned on this voyage: “To authentically move forward in an era of great change, to reimagine, to tear down walls and to design our future, we must know from where and from whom we descend. Once we do this, we can honor the diverse nature of our humanity and recognize that harnessing this power will enable us to drive innovation for good.”

Dugan’s experience is just one example of conference attendees tearing down walls, building capacity, and designing our future. More than 4,500 educators of all backgrounds—teachers, administrators, heads of school, trustees, and others in the independent school community—recently spent a few days in Long Beach, California, to reimagine their schools and rally around innovation.

Keynotes: Heroes, Intersections, Activism, and the Infinite Game

Academy Award-winning Viola Davis opened this year’s conference with her powerful story of rising out of poverty to breaking the glass ceiling and to finding significance in her acting roles and her life. “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are,” she said. LaShawn Springer, Phillips Academy Andover (MA), writes: “Listening to her, I thought about the many young people I have worked with these past few years and the messages they have received explicitly and implicitly about their value and worth in ways that were so dehumanizing and how I’ve seen them internalize these messages in harmful and damaging ways. I thought about the role of schools, and mentors, and affinity groups to be spaces that empower young people to be their authentic selves, especially those who feel they are regulated to the margins.” Elizabeth Hofreuter, head of school at Wheeling Country Day School (WV), writes, “If you are teacher, you already know that every hero needs to connect with a mentor before embarking on the journey...And we have the privilege of being a mentor on that journey for so many heroes.”

Author and entrepreneur Frans Johansson has always lived his life at the intersection. Corinne Fogg, director of curriculum at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart (MD), writes: “Johansson reminded the audience that ‘all new ideas are combinations of other ideas.’ If we bring the same teams together consistently, many of whom have similar vantages and dispositions to our own, we will sit in an echo chamber of school governance and operations...There’s an adrenaline produced in this type of collaboration. So, let’s go back to school next week and cultivate our own #medicieffect—bring folks together and let the diversity of ideation and community unleash your creativity!”

Shiza Shahid, co-founder of the Malala Fund with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, is focused on creating access to high-quality education for all children around the world. She spoke about growing up in Pakistan, studying at Stanford University, and holding a summer camp for girls who were denied access to education. There she met Malala, who spoke out publicly about the right to education and was shot in the head. Malala recovered and continues her work today. Shiza shared memorable remarks, as Kathleen McNamara, head of school at The Seven Hills School (CA), writes, including “When you empower a woman, through microloans, she reinvests in her community and helps lift it out of poverty.”

Simon Sinek asked us, “Are you playing the finite or infinite game?” Mark Crotty, head of school at St. John’s Episcopal School (TX), had heard of this concept but hadn’t considered how it applies to education. “As we're doing all this reimagining,” he writes, “we must reflect on what Sinek calls our just cause. We can't just rush forward with the new without courageously questioning everything and asking what game we invite students to play.”

The Power of Sharing

Jason Smith, who’s currently part of the NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring New Heads 2019–2020 cohort, joined his peers for two conference sessions. That’s where he had a transformative moment: Smith, assistant head of school at Brownell Talbot (NE), says his mindset is shifting. “The challenges of leadership focused far less on the ‘what’ but on the ‘how,’ " he writes in a blog post during the conference. “How we [lead] with intentionality and thoughtful purpose—this is the greatest challenge in leadership.”

It is a great time for leadership at every level as we reimagine schools in big and small ways. Tell us! What was your biggest takeaway from the conference this year?

Check out more highlights from the 2019 NAIS Annual Conference!

Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.