Finding Focus #ConferenceLife

Posted by Dr. Beth Reaves

I enjoy attending educational conferences and find it energizing to be away from my daily environment, meeting other educators and hearing about their schools. It reminds me that I’m a part of a vast community that is as committed to education and supporting students as I am. Conferences also provide a great opportunity to learn what works in different schools and classrooms and how others are innovating in their programs. In fact, the sheer number of ideas and best practices at a conference can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to come away with a lot of great thoughts, but no sense of how or whether these ideas can be effectively implemented at my school.

While I love learning new practices and perspectives on education, I try to narrow my focus on something specific I’d like to learn based on the needs of my school. Over the past few years, I’ve decided on one important (to me) topic to focus on while attending a conference. This allows me to learn as much as I can on that topic by choosing the sessions and discussions that are most relevant. At previous conferences I’ve attended, I’ve explored global thinking and experiences and blended learning in schools and have been able to bring new, actionable ideas to my school as a result.

I employed the same strategy when I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference earlier this month. NAIS members include private and independent schools across the country and even some international schools. The main theme of the conference was “Reimagining Independent Schools: tearing down walls, building capacity, and designing our future.” I decided to focus on strategic planning since the Board of WSG will begin the strategic planning process over the next few months.

I listened to a variety of school and consultant experiences with strategic planning, and while each workshop was uniquely focused on the experience of the school presenting it, two themes resonated with me: student experience and community participation.

Understanding the experiences of students should be an important part of the strategic planning process. It is important to have a clear idea of desired outcomes for students as determined by their daily school experience, school culture and environment, relationships with teachers, and the course of their educational journey. These are important components of planning for the future. In one session, a Head of School described shadowing a tenth-grade student for the day and being completely surprised at how difficult it was to follow the student’s schedule. This led the school to reimagine the allotted student and teaching time throughout the day and week and to include these changes in their strategic plan.

Nearly every session on strategic planning discussed the necessity of having a broad range of communication with the community to encourage involvement and participation in the planning process. Strategic planning and thinking should be an active part of a school’s work each year to ensure continuous programmatic improvement (as opposed to just a document that is quickly shelved and forgotten). That’s why expanding knowledge and buy-in from your community helps to keep everyone working toward a shared goal. I find this idea particularly refreshing as it is a departure from a time not too long ago when a board would create a strategic plan without community input, present it to the school, and expect it to be successfully implemented.

Overall, I appreciated my experience at the NAIS conference and hearing from other educators who are willing to share what they’ve learned from managing a school. And while each school perspective and approach is different, we still have so much to learn from one another as we pursue a common goal in the positive growth and advancement of our students.


If you didn’t catch it in our newsletter, here is the video of our own school innovation that was presented at the NAIS conference. Enjoy!

The Washington School for Girls was featured at the 2019 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference, themed “Reimagining Independent Schools.” WSG was one of four schools selected out of over 1,800 member schools to be featured at the event.  NAIS was particularly interested in our innovative approach to student learning, including our year-round balanced calendar, comprehensive student and family support, and ongoing graduate support, as well as our all-scholarship donor-funded financial model. 

The NAIS Annual Conference is one of the leading professional development events for educators in Independent Schools. The three-day program included workshop tracks for heads, board members, administrators, and teachers, as well as featured keynote addresses from inspirational leaders and authors, including Shiza Shahid (co-founder of the Malala Fund), Viola Davis, Simon Sinek, and Frans Johannson. This year’s theme, “Reimagining Independent Schools,” brought the topics of innovation and inclusion to the forefront as Independent Schools seek to prepare an increasingly diverse student population for the careers of tomorrow.