Principals from across the United States and Canada gathered in Chicago in July to learn from each other and industry thought leaders at the annual National Principals Conference. The principals heard three keynote speakers: Adolph Brown, a professor on sabbatical from Hampton University and founder and president of The Business & Education Leadership Authority; Scott Barry Kaufman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and three NASSP Digital Principals—Dwight Carter, former principal at New Albany High School in New Albany, OH; Carrie Jackson, principal of Northwest High School in Justin, TX; and William Ziegler, principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA.

Adolph Brown: Time for “Real Talk”

In a dynamic presentation that involved videos, music, dancing, and constant audience interaction, Brown focused on the need to transform education, how perceptions may differ from reality, and why it is more important than ever to confront biases through “real talk.”

Describing himself as a “recovering middle school education teacher,” he said that while many in the audience might view him as a conference speaker, he is still really an educator at heart and he views the audience as his classroom.

Principals and administrators should be service- and servant-​oriented, concentrating on the needs of their students, according to Brown. Don’t go into education as a way to simply spend a couple of years until “something better comes along,” he warned.

As a lifelong educator, Brown is constantly on the lookout for his school leaders. Reflective leaders are effective leaders, he emphasized, but it is also critical to pursue excellence through rigor. Leaders also understand that while it is possible to change behavior, it is not productive to try to change a student’s basic personality. Making eye contact with students is not just a best practice, he explained, but a critical part of purposeful engagement.

Brown gave principals a laundry lists of aphorisms that have guided his educational philosophy through the years:

  • Leaders leave things better than they found them.
  • When you meet resistance, acknowledge the situation and ask questions.
  • Realize that change is often a good thing—how would you feel if your doctor didn’t change?
  • Look at yourself in the mirror.
  • Families are our partners.
  • Everybody has a second personality, which means that no student is exactly what they may seem at first blush.
  • Personal energy and collective energy are real.

Scott Barry Kaufman: Defining Student Intelligence

According to Kaufman, determining student intelligence solely through SAT scores doesn’t capture what really comprises this critical aspect of human development.

“Student intelligence is about grit, about passion, and perseverance,” he told the principals.

A self-described “quirky” personality, Kaufman told an enlightening personal story about how he wound up studying psychology at Carnegie Mellon University after initially being rejected by that department because his SAT scores weren’t satisfactory. The journey involved entering as an opera major and working his way to a major in psychology through grit and perseverance.

Kaufman said that there are dangers in labeling students, an action which sometimes results in lowered expectations. In addition, he said, clearly there are “twice-exceptional students,” who are gifted while simultaneously needing additional learning tools. Creative types often have “messy personalities,” according to Kaufman.

He told the audience that he is writing a book that will be published next year, which will advance Abraham Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs, asserting that “we need a broader conception of what a child should be.” Principals can help students achieve their potential by helping them “harmonize” their goals, needs, and personal attributes, Kaufman said.

The Digital Principals: Deploy Your Superhero Strengths

Dwight Carter, Carrie Jackson, and William Ziegler told principals to use their “superpowers” to improve education for all their stakeholders—staff, students, parents, and the community.

Superpower #1: Curiosity

  • It is absolutely critical for principals to model curiosity for their students so they, too, will become curious about learning and about their environment.
  • Human beings are unique because they can ask questions. Principals should encourage their students to ask questions and find out new information.
  • Curiosity leads to creativity and innovation in all areas of education. Your future leaders will all possess a strong sense of curiosity.

Superpower #2: Courage

  • Principals need to be active listeners and have the courage to act on what they hear.
  • Students with courage have the capability to overcome physical disabilities.
  • It takes more courage to say “yes” than “no.”
  • It takes courage for students—and principals—to ask for help.
  • It takes courage to truly empower students.
  • It takes courage to let go and not try to control your students or children.
  • It takes courage to admit that you are not perfect and to not expect your students to be perfect.
  • It takes courage to admit that, sometimes, your students have more courage than you do.

Superpower #3: Collaboration

  • You can learn a lot about people when you truly work with them.
  • Collaborating in “playful” activities can be both rewarding and instructive.
  • One of the most important groups to collaborate with is parents.

Superpower #4: Coachability

  • If you’re not coachable, you will never be as successful as you could be.
  • Even the greatest athletes in the world need coaching.
  • Praise can be powerful, but constructive critiques can be even more powerful.
  • Successfully coaching your staff and students can be just as rewarding for you as it is for them.

Superpower #5: Creativity

  • It is creativity that leads to true innovation. New medical devices, new forms of energy, and new technological breakthroughs in communication have come about through creativity.
  • While creativity may be innate, it can also be nurtured by principals who really understand its importance.
  • While you shouldn’t take unnecessary risk, being “dangerously safe” can pay benefits and dividends.

Superpower #6: Student Voice and Choice

  • After Parkland, student voice has become more important than ever.
  • Students will become more active when they are affected by particular education policies.
  • Empowering students to succeed should not be an empty promise, but instead an action item for principals.
  • Have lunch with the kids—really, have lunch with them—and you will learn a lot about them.
  • Come up with innovative ways to engage students, for example, through connections with universities and colleges.
  • Connecting with students begins on the first day of school, but facilitating student voice and choice lasts forever.

The presentation by the NASSP Digital Principals was the closing session of the conference, ending the event with a strong message for principals to take back to their schools.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.