National Association of Independent Schools Conference 
Hosted on Friends Select’s “Campus”

Philadelphia was the host city for the 2020 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in February. The conference is the premier professional development and networking event for independent school educators, leaders, and advocates looking to connect with peers, attend educational sessions, and advance their careers. Content ranges from topics for teachers, school heads and administrators, and advancement professions, and on average the nonprofit membership association attracts 5,000 participants from over 1,800 of its national and international member schools.  

All Friends Select faculty and staff were presented with the opportunity to attend a full day of the convention, themed “Your School, Your Legacy.” “We as a school will only be as strong and excellent as our people feel appreciated and supported, and providing opportunities for our faculty to grow is an institutional priority,” said Michael Gary, Friends Select’s head of school. “What better way for our faculty and staff to share in that than through a professional development opportunity in our very own city?”     

Michael served as a member of the conference’s planning committee for over a year leading up to the event. He also had the honor of introducing keynote speaker Angie Thomas, New York Times-bestselling author of The Hate You Give, before her presentation, “Finding Your Activism and Turning the Political into the Personal.” As a nod to Friends Select, he greeted the crowd with a welcome to Friends Select’s campus.   

“Philadelphia is our classroom,” Michael said. “Because of our presence in the city, I wanted our school to be represented in as many ways possible at NAIS.” Natalie Mayer P'32, upper school biology teacher and science department chair, served as a conference speaker and added, “With the NAIS annual conference taking place in Philadelphia—our campus—
it was the perfect opportunity for Friends Select to shine.” Friends Select was highlighted in many ways, including a performance by the 4th grade Orff ensemble—conducted by Colleen Law, lower school music teacher—and four educational sessions led by six faculty members. “Having so many of our faculty and staff members present at the conference demonstrates our contribution to best practices in the field of education,” Michael said proudly.         

“Planning our presentation was a resounding confirmation that it is important to practice what you preach in education,” said Margaret Smith, director of city curriculum, who presented at NAIS with Natalie. “We did not want to just lecture educators about using their neighborhood resources; we wanted to give them a taste of learning through the city.” In their presentation, “Looking to Enhance Your Curriculum? Take a Walk Through Your School’s Neighborhood with Us,” Margaret and Natalie used Friends Select’s city curriculum model in guiding peer educators to utilize their own neighborhoods in academic programming. In an effort to allow attendees to learn outside of the conference classroom setting, Margaret and Natalie created four demonstration activities outside of the Convention Center along Arch Street.     

Chris Singler, head of upper school, presented “Change Management in School Leadership” at the conference, in addition to completing NAIS’s Fellowship for Aspiring Heads. “Paired together, the conference sessions and the Fellowship for Aspiring Heads allowed me to consider the many perspectives of our school operations, for example, human resources, advancement, and ethics,” he said.     

Christine Jefferson, director of development and alumni relations, also reflected on the NAIS conference’s opportunities for independent school faculty and staff to broaden their knowledge outside of their specific fields. “The annual conference provides an expansive range of topics for attendees to seek out information to which they might not typically have access,” she said.  Along with Michael and Kendall Cameron, former associate director of upper school, to be School Head? What You Need to Know NOW about Advancement” to educate independent school professionals on the importance of cultivating relationships with donors, as well as fundraising and advancement work for heads of school.     

As both Friends Select’s director of equity and inclusion and a Friends Council on Education (FCE) board member, Toni Graves Williamson—a two-time NAIS annual conference speaker—presented “Breaking the Bonds of Bias in Hiring.” Accompanied by Deborra Sines Pancoe P’95, ’01, ’05, a former Friends Select faculty member and FCE associate director, Toni’s program prompted attendees to reflect on their personal biases, and provided resources for the work necessary to hire for equity and inclusion. “Most independent schools were created to be exclusive institutions; we are now working diligently to create inclusive communities. I believe that should start in the hiring process,” Toni said. “Having protocols and a process for hiring are essential, and given the audience of administrators at NAIS, I thought it was the perfect setting for the workshop.”     

Toni, who has participated in many NAIS offerings, including the People of Color Conference, Diversity Leadership Institute, and various online resources, can personally attest to the benefits the organization offers to independent school educators. “NAIS resources are essential,” she said. “They provide unmatched professional development opportunities 
for independent schools and help to hold all of us accountable to best practices.”