Principals have one of the hardest jobs on earth. More than 35 percent leave their position after their third year on the job. Many people believe principals are just the head of their school building, enforcing rules and handling school discipline matters. But in addition to those jobs, principals are moderators, human resource managers, counselors, and accountants. Principals concern themselves with the academic curriculum, but also play a vital role in the social-emotional and mental health of all of the students, teachers, and staff. They are multitaskers who put everyone else’s needs before their own.

Once a year, principals have the chance to recharge at NASSP’s National Principals Conference. More than 3,000 principals gathered in Boston this past July for three days of learning, inspiration, and camaraderie.

This year’s speakers touched on everything from embracing an innovator’s mindset and addressing hyper-change to creating a culture of caring within a school. These were the major takeaways.

Learning With Technology

Our conversation has evolved from technology’s practical, surface-level uses to how technology can genuinely accelerate learning and empower both students and educators. The speakers made it clear that schools are in the midst of a technological evolution. We must meet students where they are when it comes to multimedia, even if we are lacking in our own technological knowledge. If we do that, we will begin to become the innovators and disruptors that education needs. One of the thought leaders for the conference, Tracey Wilen, author and strategy consultant, said, “If students don’t learn to use technology effectively to leverage their skills, they will be at a disadvantage.” She also reminded us that “85 percent of people are visual learners. Multimedia literacy brings content to life in a way that isn’t flat.”

Creating Community

Schools are communities, so within each school, principals need to cultivate that same sense of belonging and value. They need to create a relationship with each teacher, student, and parent so that each feels appreciated. People may not remember what you say or how you look, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Another thought leader, George Couros, principal and author, reminded us to be mindful of each other. He suggested, “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day that they did in their classroom [with] a school hashtag and took five minutes each day to read each other’s tweets? What would that do for school culture?”—it would show that they care.

Jay Billy, principal and author, along with his co-presenters, encouraged everyone to build a community via technology. He stated, “If you’re not connected, get connected. Twitter is the best professional development and professional learning network you can get.” Connecting with other principals through Twitter is a great way to get advice and see what others are doing in their schools. David Geurin, principal, author, and a conference thought leader, also added, “Every interaction is an opportunity for building relationships.” And Geoffrey Canada—principal, social activist, documentarian, author, and final keynote speaker for the conference—explained, “My kids [students] know where to find me.” Canada’s students still go back to Harlem to visit him because of the relationships he created with each one of them while they were at his school. Students need to be a part of a community in order to feel heard and validated.

Innovation and Disruption

School is not what it used to be—innovation and disruption are not dirty words, and now is the time to embrace change. Couros imparted some delightful wisdom when he said, “Tradition is peer pressure from dead people.” We don’t always need to follow tradition. Sometimes it’s good to innovate new customs and beliefs. He also said, “We need to think outside the box to get the students to be more involved, active learners,” and to “Ask yourself the question, ‘Would you want to spend the whole day learning in your own classroom?’” That introspection allows teachers to evaluate their own teaching practices and, perhaps, bring in some of their own ideas of innovation and disruption.

Part of leading in an era of innovation and disruption also means making sure that your teachers are doing the very best that they can for your students. Guerin reminded us, “Excellence is not meeting a standard. It is continuing to grow, learn, and change. It is the opposite of mediocrity.” Jimmy Casas—a former principal, owner and CEO, author, and NPC presenter—told us, “Underperformance by employees is a big issue, but failing to address the underperformance is an even bigger issue. When we ignore or avoid, we allow mediocrity to become the standard.”

If your teachers are not rising above mediocrity, then it may be time to have a tough conversation. “The only way to get better at having the tough conversations is to have the tough conversations,” Casas said. Another presenter, Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent and author, told us, “The mess is where the tough conversations are, but where the good stuff is, too.”

When it comes to innovation and disruption, Canada is all for it, but he warns, “If you are serious about being a champion for changing the education system, you must have your courage ready and you must have principles and ethics, because people will try to shut you down. The ones who try to change the system are the ones who come the most under attack.”

Taking Care of You

Principals do so much for others that they rarely have time to do anything for themselves. But how can they be effective leaders if they don’t recharge, relax, and regroup? Principal burnout and turnover are just as rampant as teacher burnout. Principal Beth Houf gave us these ideas to combat it:

  • Take some time to reflect on YOUR passions.
  • Write them down.
  • Reflect—do your students and staff know what you’re passionate about? How might they get to know YOU better?
  • Do you know what your students and staff are passionate about? If not, how might you find out?


Attendees also shared many other ideas as part of the conference. Casas gave us the Five W’s of Leadership:

  • Who you are as a leader should be the same as who you are as a person. Know your core, share your core, and then live your core.
  • What challenges you face on a daily basis do not need to define you, but how you respond to them will determine your character.
  • When you feel disappointed and find yourself falling to average, remember that your personal excellence starts over again tomorrow.
  • Where some complain and place blame on others, recognize that you are responsible for your own feelings; it’s your choice whether those experiences leave you energized or depleted.
  • Why some students and educators lose their passion for learning and teaching we may never know, but never stop believing that you can inspire others.

Principal Sanee Bell said, “Students should have rich, relevant, and authentic experiences at school across the board.” Couros agrees. “If we want our students to come to school excited, we must bring that same energy, passion, and positivity to work with us each day,” he said. “The only way to change the narrative of what it means to be an educator is to amplify the positive.”

Canada ended our conference with his own wise words, “We don’t decide which students fail. Our duty is to instill in all of our students the belief they will succeed—no matter the obstacles.”

The voices of NASSP’s National Principals Conference are clear: We have a future ahead of us that will be full of change. But if we embrace technology, create a community within our schools, really let the students feel valued and know that we care, and take care of our own mental and physical health, we can charge ahead into that future with confidence.

Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.