For a second year, the National Principals Conference was held virtually. While participants didn’t get to see each other in person, connections were made via the NPC21 digital platform. It was exciting to check the online mailbox to see if old or new friends requested a connection. Friendships were rekindled as messages abounded.

At noon each day, conference attendees could choose from one of three opening activities: Army Boot Camp, with stretches and exercises to get participants moving; Mindful Desk Yoga, which included meditation to increase productivity and creativity; or Yoga Basics, in which participants learned how to move through their day with mindfulness and intention. All three sessions helped teach principals how to move to relax, recover, and reduce stress and burnout.

On each day of the conference, the keynote speakers provided inspiration and focus along the three strands: equity, innovation, and wellness.

Equity: Create Equitable Educational Environments for All Students

Dr. Dena Simmons was the opening keynote speaker. She led with a vibrance that electrified the audience, beginning by telling us her own “imposter syndrome” story. Imposter syndrome is a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” It includes people who feel like they cannot be themselves because they have to assimilate into the mainstream. They aren’t comfortable or confident in their own skin. To eradicate this syndrome, we must increase our emotional intelligence and cultivate culturally relevant practices.

“Emotional intelligence,” as defined by Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990, is “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” The skills needed for emotional intelligence are recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions.

According to Dr. Tyrone Howard, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, a culturally relevant pedagogy is “an attempt to create a schooling experience that enables students to pursue academic excellence without abandoning their cultural integrity.” Culturally relevant practices include:

  • Creating opportunities to get to know students and families to develop meaningful relationships
  • Using narrative to build commonality (tell stories)
  • Allowing students and families to use their community and life circumstances as official knowledge
  • Being supportive of constituents’ home and family culture
  • Translating materials to make information accessible
  • Helping students recognize, understand, and critique current social inequities
  • Using varied strategies to engage and reach diverse constituents
  • Using correct pronouns and learning how to pronounce names
  • Developing a community of learners
  • Mastering your content so that your students can do the same
  • Ensuring rigor in your instruction and leadership to disrupt inequity
  • Challenging implicit bias and limited mindset about students, families, and communities
  • Interrupting single or dominant narratives

Simmons discussed how the intersection of emotionally intelligent and culturally relevant practices can create equitable and welcoming learning environments for everyone, reminding us that inclusion does not necessarily mean belonging, and that many students, while included in activities, don’t always feel as though they belong when others question their cultured responses. Simmons quoted Junot Diaz when she said, “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

We must meet our students where they are, accept them for who they are, and then teach them what they need to be successful. Simmons continued by saying, “You can’t be emotionally intelligent without being culturally responsive,” and asked, “What can we do to create environments with greater belonging?” The answer:

  • Look within ourselves.
  • Invite students’ stories.
  • Mine for assets, not deficits.
  • Use diversity curricula.
  • Lift up yourself and others.

She concluded by reminding us, “What matters most are our efforts to work with and to celebrate and welcome the unique strengths of the students, families, and communities we serve.”

Innovation: What Grading for Equity Means Post-Pandemic

On the second day of the conference, keynote speaker Joe Feldman turned our attention to how the pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on fundamental flaws of our traditional grading practices. Feldman led a thought-provoking address that gave us the historical background of why and how our current educational system grades, along with an explanation as to why we need to revamp our inherited grading system, which plays a critical role in perpetuating opportunity gaps. Our current historically accepted grading practices actually constrain communication and provide misleading information about our students. The system inhibits learning and hurts our most marginalized students. Feldman said the three pillars of equitable grading should be:

  • Accurate: Grades should be an accurate reflection of students’ academic performance.
  • Bias-resistant: Grades should counteract institutional biases and prevent our implicit biases from infecting our grades.
  • Motivation: Students should be able to build their own intrinsic motivation (self-regulation) and sense of efficacy.

Feldman reminded us that we can counteract institutional biases by having grading practices that don’t reward students who have privileges of resources, time, support, and prior knowledge, and don’t penalize students without privilege. We should have grading practices that recognize and support students with fewer support systems and who have experienced more systemic barriers to academic success.

Equitable grading practices should not include:

  • 0–100 percentage scale
  • “Participation” and other student behaviors
  • Performance on homework/formative assessments
  • Group grades
  • Extra credit

Equitable grading practices should be based on only the most recent performance grade and should include:

  • Explicit learning outcomes
  • Rubrics and “standards scales” that describe gradations of outcome mastery
  • Retakes and redos
  • 0–4 scale
  • Expanded use of formative feedback

With a more equitable grading system, Feldman said, quantitatively for students there is reduced grade inflation and deflation, lower achievement disparities, and a statistically significant increase in correlation between grades and standardized exam scores. Qualitatively, students are more motivated and have more hope of academic success, are less stressed and less focused on “points,” speak about their progress in terms of strengths and areas of growth, and have more positive relationships with teachers.

The light that the pandemic shone revealed new insight into the fragility and the resilience of our children and educators. We have been invited to reexamine our shared humanity. It has also given us insight into students’ lives. We can’t ignore that, so it is time to transform our inherited grading system into one that will provide accurate and equitable evaluation of all students.

Wellness: How to Foster Leadership and Resilience in These Times

The closing keynote speaker was renowned writer, leader, teacher, coach, and podcaster Elena Aguilar. After leading the audience in a land-gratitude moment, where she expressed her thankfulness for the people and animals that inhabited our land before us, Aguilar acknowledged all of the stressors that have occurred over the past 18 months and reminded us that we all have resilience to weather the storm that has battered us. She gave 12 strategies to build resilience:

  1. Self-talk: Tell yourself, “Right here, right now, everything is OK.”
  2. Feel your body: Do a body scan. Notice if you are hot or cold. Move your body.
  3. Breathe: Breathe slowly. Learn the science behind the power of breathing. For the most effective cleansing breath, exhale longer than you inhale.
  4. Recognize, name, and accept your emotions: Consider your emotions as friends. You can invite them in to talk for a while or ask them to stay away. Listen to them. Learn from them.
  5. Stay connected: Be sure to connect with friends or staff. You don’t want to suffer from a “loneliness pandemic.” Ask yourself: Who can I connect with who will be nourishing to my soul?
  6. Take care of yourself: Sleep, eat, and exercise. Ask yourself: What is one tiny thing I can do today to help myself?
  7. Practice perspective: Look at the lives of other people who have perhaps suffered. You don’t need to diminish your own suffering. Use “and,” as in, “What they went through was hard AND what I am going through is hard, too.”
  8. Be kind to yourself: See strategy No. 1.
  9. Distract yourself: Use a healthy distraction like reading, cooking, or even binge-watching shows on Netflix. You get bonus resilience points if you create something as a distraction.
  10. Look for bright spots: Our brains are designed to latch onto negative thoughts. Ask yourself: What has been one bright spot in my day?
  11. Practice gratitude: Practice gratitude for yourself, for others, for anything.
  12. Practice “maybe”: Remember that what is occurring now is not the end of the story. “Maybe” there is more.

During times of crisis and uncertainty, Aguilar argued, leaders need to be courageous, responsive, and emotionally attuned to others. School administrators can do this if they make sure their “resiliency tank” stays full. These 12 strategies will help.

Together, We Will

NPC21 gave us the opportunity to realize that together we can create a system of support for one another as administrators and that, together, we will provide our students with an equitable education by using innovative methods that help protect our students’ social and emotional health. We will do this so our students can have the successful futures they deserve.

Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.