Embracing Joy and Inspiration at the 2022 NAIS Annual Conference

“At your schools, you’ve lived through a dozen new normals these past few years,” NAIS President Donna Orem told more than 2,000 educators gathered at the 2022 NAIS Annual Conference last week. “You’ve pivoted a hundred times. You learned (and re-learned) an entirely new way to approach education. But with all this change and reaction, you haven’t forgotten what it’s all about.”

Orem officially welcomed the independent school community with a visual montage of moments of celebration. Despite the myriad challenges in the past two years, educators kept students engaged, and they kept educators energized. Amid hardship, our community came together to embrace the spirit of joy. The conference theme called on educators to remember why they initially set out on this winding path and to embrace the joy and inspiration that comes from the work.

Keynote speakers encouraged innovation while maintaining the best elements of schools’ traditions. Roundtables, in-depth workshops, wellness activities, master classes, and networking connected colleagues who explored the latest thinking in governance and leadership; strategy and innovation; and equity, health, and well-being; among other topics.

Writer, comedian, commentator, and podcast host Baratunde Thurston—a Sidwell Friends School (DC) alum—delivered the opening keynote address. A master of engaging in difficult and complex conversations, he used humor, wisdom, and compassion to synthesize themes of race, culture, politics, and technology to explain where our nation currently stands—and where we can take it. “We have been taught the myth that we are separate,” Thurston said. “That’s not true. We are all connected. You must teach the value of showing up and participating.” He described how our schools knit into the overall tapestry of citizenship, culture, democracy, and justice.

The conference continued with wellness sessions, workshops that educators proposed and presented, and topic roundtables. Then, attendees gathered to hear from keynote speaker john a. powell, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. He highlighted a framework independent schools can use to establish a shared language in building inclusive communities. He noted, “Belonging says, ‘Bring your full self.’ ” Working from a position of understanding can mitigate common challenges we might otherwise face. In this spirit, powell engaged with attendees in a lively Q&A dialogue, much like Thurston did.

Attendees also tackled a universal challenge: overcoming setbacks in learning following the disruptions from the pandemic. Keynote speaker Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an expert in the neuroscience of learning and a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, opened attendees’ eyes to new ways our schools can think about learning development. She explained that because of the human brain’s structure, “meaningful learning always involves emotion.” Attendees posed many questions during the Q&A, which will continue to fuel our imaginations as we pursue new ideas.

Perennial favorite Adam Grant led a book club discussion. The psychologist and Wharton professor discussed his bestselling book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, teasing out how it can apply specifically to independent schools. And author Matthew Barzun, with NAIS Chief Innovation Officer Tim Fish, delivered a thought-provoking keynote address about the “power of giving away power,” a notion that seems contrary to conventional wisdom. Barzun emphasized the benefits for schools of pivoting to a mindset built on the concept of “constellations” instead. This illuminated a new pathway to success simply by opening our minds to new ideas.

And in a fun format that helps attendees frame their teaching for students, PechaKucha presenters delivered 20 slides in 400 seconds, homing in on the most important information and allowing attendees to learn a lot in a short amount of time.

In the closing keynote address, author and professor Sheena Iyengar encouraged attendees to adopt an innovation mindset. “Don’t be afraid to go beyond the familiar and the possible, and consider the strange and impossible,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to connect and combine different ideas with courage and intent.” With this aspirational and inspirational mission, she sent attendees out into the world and back to their school communities to continue to dream up the “big ideas” that will reveal a variety of paths for educators and students alike.

The thousands of unique individuals who gathered over three days at the conference represent a vibrant, multifaceted community of schools. The variety of viewpoints expressed enrich our community and support each school in becoming the best learning institution possible. We sincerely hope the 2022 NAIS Annual Conference fostered the connection, learning, and support from our community you deserve, so you return to school refreshed to do your most important work—educate students for a bright future.