For the first time ever, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals are holding a joint conference—the National Principals Conference. This meeting, taking place in Philadelphia in July, will be a first—not only in terms of participation, but also in content and design. To highlight what’s coming up, we convened a roundtable of conference planners, including Kimberly Buckheit, principal at Metz Middle School in Manassas, VA; JoVon Rogers, principal at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, VA; and Jared Wastler, principal at Dover Area High School in Dover, PA. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: What was the impetus for combining the NASSP and NAESP conferences for the first time?

Rogers: There is a lot to learn when you consider the opportunities for vertical articulation between pre-K through 12. While there are many differences among the elementary schools and the secondary schools, there are also a lot of similarities and things that we could all learn from one another to better support our students. The format of this conference will allow us to converse with other principals to gain ideas and perspectives that we haven’t considered when only interacting with those at our levels. The K–12 vertical articulation is so important in making sure that our students are successful from the time they enter our doors in prekindergarten or kindergarten to the time when they prepare for college and careers.

Wastler: Good leadership is good leadership. Often in education, we divide ourselves by “elementary” and “secondary,” and we need to stop doing that because the reality is we all are leaders of schools that serve our students and our community. This conference provides an opportunity, really for the first time, for two organizations that have both served that need independently to come together. Education is not K–6 or 7–12. It’s K–12 and then some, and now we have an opportunity to really learn and discuss that as a group.

Buckheit: It’s important for both organizations to be mindful of the economic times that we’re in and joining resources to bring the best in the field of education together. A single conference allows us to be fiscally responsible to the membership of both organizations. There are some common themes that cross the K–12 spectrum, such as student mental health needs and managing the many demands of the position. I personally have had the opportunity to be able to attend both organizations’ conferences as a middle school principal and have often found that there were the same speakers for both groups. One unified conference sends a national message that K–12 education is something that is seamless. We need the national public to understand that it’s important for each one of us, at each level, to be working with students to help them eventually graduate college and be career ready.

Levin-Epstein: What has the planning process been like?

Buckheit: I was part of the group helping to organize the different strands. I felt that we were able to provide input to the national organization about new areas we were encountering every day: mental health-related and disability-​awareness topics. We need to ensure we are providing professional development for our principals around topics that may not have been included in a typical teacher or leader preparation program. I had the opportunity to review proposals from professionals across the country and am excited by the submissions. It’s a cross-section of professionals who impact the students that we see every day. I’m excited by the diversity of topic proposals. I read through some excellent proposals on serving students with autism. This topic is going to be new for principals to have on the menu of options going into this conference.

Rogers: It’s really exciting to see a lot of the forward thinking reflected in the proposals. There are a lot of buzzwords going around regarding blended classrooms and how we could better use technology to prepare our students for the future. It’s very exciting to see what some of the schools are doing around the country. Oftentimes we’re isolated and only aware of the focus in our own districts. But hearing from leaders on a national level to affirm what you’re doing, or to gain some different ideas, gives us different perspective.

I think what’s most exciting about this conference is that it’s different from what you’ve seen in the past. There will be some sessions where you engage in high-level activities during typical presentations, but there are also opportunities to engage with those presenters and other educators in a more informal manner through Edcamps and mini-​sessions in the lobbies. Edcamps are a great option because when we consider what’s going on in our country right now, there are a lot of implications for school leaders. When we were planning the conference, we could not have predicted that. But the opportunity for the participants to engage in Edcamps will allow them to engage in topics of their choice, to pool resources together, and learn from one another to address some of these timely topics. So, there’s a lot of opportunity for choice, a lot of different formats, but more than anything, lots of forward thinking in terms of how we can better serve our students and learn from one another on a national level.

Wastler: I also served on the initial committee that put together the subject matter framework for the conference and now I have transitioned into the digital planning role and building upon that framework. There’s a lot of excitement around our focus on making this a dynamic conference, which is good, because we don’t work in static jobs; we work in dynamic environments. So, to be involved in a conference really being driven around a dynamic mindset is exciting, but it’s also reflective of the organizations and the profession. 

Our two organizations together were one of the first to put an Edcamp into a conference. Our organizations were one of the first to look at ways to get outside the box. You’re seeing other professional organizations model that approach. So, this is another opportunity to take that forward-thinking mentality that both groups have had and really engage with practitioners. We’ve also been very practitioner-focused. We’re not focused on promoting something-we’re focused on making sure that practitioners hear from other professionals to learn and grow.

Levin-Epstein: What new topics are on the agenda?

Rogers: One of the things that stood out to me are the sessions on how to brand your school. I saw a lot of topics in that area—connected to communicating the mission and vision of your school. There will be sessions on using technology to craft the message you want told about your school and how to brand it. This is an interesting and different topic for me because I think that we’re in competition with a lot of charter schools and private schools, and as a leader you’re not just thinking about your instructional leadership role, but also the message you want sent about your school to showcase the great things happening. That was one of the topics, among many. There are a lot of student-centered topics focused on the whole child from K through grade 12.

Wastler: I think something else exciting that’s showing up in a lot of the proposals—we talk a lot about leadership, but we focus leadership on those who are already in the role, and there seems to be a growing amount of aspiring leadership theory. It’s exciting to see that, as a leadership organization, we are tackling not just the topic of what good leaders do, but really looking at the pipeline and development for the next generation, building the teacher-​leader within the building who may become the next administrator, and really providing the framework and tools to help them succeed.

Buckheit: I’ll circle back to the topics of mental health and school culture. What I noticed was that the professionals submitting proposals were understanding that school culture relates to the concept of wellness for our students and staff. I felt that the proposals had gone beyond typical management and structures of schools to, “What are things we do to make sure we’re caring for the whole child and our staff?” I could see the audience for these sessions being a K–12 one, as it relates to the kindergartner as well as the 12th-grader, how we ensure the care of the whole child’s social-emotional [needs] as well as academic well-being.

Levin-Epstein: What new formats are being planned?

Buckheit: When we were doing the initial planning, one of the things we had talked about is the spectrum of people that are attending: You have the first-year principal leader, as well as the person who has attended 10, 12, or 15 times. How do we create a differentiated approach for the learners, taking into account that we’re all at different points in our careers and the type of professional engagement activities we are seeking when we attend? We were trying to make the conference an experience where everybody could find something that would match their need. If it’s a person that I’ve heard speak several times, I can then choose to participate in an Edcamp.

We were also really trying to connect people with each other. One of the valuable outcomes of attending a conference like this is that you develop relationships with people from across the country. I have valued the principal friends that I’ve made who are in other states that I can gather ideas [from]. How do we make sure that these relationships continue? We foster them in the three or four days when we’re together, but then try to create ways for people to maintain the relationships over time.

Rogers: We were also trying to find locations out in the community so people can meet after the conference to carry those discussions on.

Wastler: One of the things we’ve been working on that’s kind of another innovation for our conference resulted from the fact that often we leave a session, and you give a quick “good job” to a presenter, get their card or contact info, and then there’s no opportunity to speak to anybody else or reflect. So, we’ve built time into our schedule for post-session reflection, where people can break into smaller groups and really reflect on the conversations they just had. Getting people to not just sit next to somebody from Nebraska or Iowa and say, “It’s nice to meet you,” but actually get a chance to engage and develop that relationship, or start developing relationships, ultimately benefits our schools. That’s something we’re working on. 

We’re also working on bringing students from local schools into the conference in a mock-classroom situation, and having good teachers and good leaders working with their students at the conference so that administrators can go in and interact with kids and understand that other schools are doing great things. Often we don’t have the time to get out into schools, but if we can bring the schools to us, it’s an opportunity to learn some more and get those walkthroughs.

Buckheit: We want people to walk away at the end of the experience and be recharged, energized, and feel positive. This was another discussion point when we were doing early planning. We may not always get the positive things that allow us as leaders to continue to stay in the profession. We want people to be proud to be a principal and to walk away at the end of the experience feeling rejuvenated, like they can go back and do great work for another day. We hope that principals value the time spent and continue to come back year after year for that feeling and experience.

Wastler: What you just said is really important. Secondary principals have not had a conference at which they didn’t need to return to school the next day. We’ve traditionally gone to our conference, come home, and then returned directly back to our routine. Trying to take that passionate or inspirational moment and turn it into reality is easy on the plane, but it’s not easy when you walk in after three days out and have to play catch-up. This is the first time the secondary group is going to have an opportunity to take something we’re interested in and connect with somebody, learn more about it, and look at putting it in place.

Rogers: I think the other interesting thing is the short sessions out in the lobbies. Some of the topics don’t necessarily require a full 45 minutes or 90 minutes, but it’s just a short, inspirational “talk” that people might want to engage in.

Wastler: And if you gauge the excitement around the conference, just simply look at how many proposals came in for what is essentially a new conference. While we’re taking two things and putting them together, this is a new idea for us, and yet, we have hundreds of proposals from around the country because people are excited. 

There are a lot of good people who won’t be accepted to present because we don’t have the space. So, part of that idea—I don’t want to call it TED Talk, but that idea of the shorter piece—is maybe your topic didn’t get accepted because we can’t see it fitting into an hour’s worth of time, but I think this is an idea that people need to hear, so we want to give you 15 minutes to share what you’re doing in your school. So, we’re trying to find a way to get as many people who are excited and are doing great things a chance to share it within the limited resources that we have available at a conference.

Levin-Epstein: Any final messageto principals?

Buckheit: It can be frightening to be by yourself going to something this large. I just encourage people to do that. If you are the only principal in your division, or you’re the only principal in your region to come, this is going to be a place where you can create relationships, where you can feel less alone as you go back to where you work. I think we’re trying, again, to create that experience for people who are coming from large school districts with large principal teams as well as school districts with only a single K–12 principal. So, hopefully we create some fun ways for you to make new friends and to not feel alone at the end of the experience.

Rogers: I’ve been to many conferences, and typically it’s much of the same. I really feel like the topics being offered through this conference are innovative. They are going to help building leaders really think about how they can help to prepare their students for the 21st century and all that entails. It sounds very cliché, but there are a lot of very practical ideas that many may not have considered. We’ve considered all needs from millennial leaders to those more seasoned, and we pretty much have something for everyone. All of the topics are very relevant and inclusive of a variety of needs, so you could definitely take the information that you learn from this conference and go back to your school and apply it right away. That’s not always the case. Oftentimes someone is selling something, so in order for you to implement a plan you need to buy something, but we’re offering practical, great ideas. This conference is a great way to build partnerships and gain a K–12 perspective; to think about how we can support our students from the very beginning until they go out into the workforce or college.

Wastler: I think the phrase I would use is, “You are not alone.” The principalship can be a very isolating profession, just by the numbers game. But it’s not. We’re not alone. I’ll speak for me: Being in a district where I’m the only high school principal, I have to reach outside my district to find people to network [with]. Use the opportunity for a conference like this to connect. If you’re going with a team, as was mentioned earlier, it’s OK to be with your team, but it’s even better to get away from your team, because when you return, your team is going to be there. But the people who you are going to meet at the conference may not be. 

So, to me, it’s all about getting there, finding new people, hearing new voices, making new connections, because that’s what makes your team stronger in the long run. It reminds you you’re not alone. We’re all in this together for the same common goal. I think what’s really exciting about this conference is, for the first time, we’re going to have everybody in the same house. It’s a wonderful opportunity to build that professional learning network that we’ve never really had before.