61. Takeaways from The National Small Schools Conference
There is nothing like an in-person conference, which offers the opportunity to meet new people, connect with colleagues and friends and share experiences with professionals who share similar challenges and opportunities that come with working in a small school. On this week’s episode, we discuss our experience at The National Small Schools Conference at the Crefeld School in June. Tune in as we discuss the significance of conferences and training sessions in personal development, how conferences can provide both connection and learning, and hear from attendees about their key takeways.
About Tara Claeys & Aubrey Bursch:
Tara Claeys is the founder of Design TLC – a professional website agency for small schools. She’s passionate about helping organizations provide enriching experiences for children by creating a great first impression online. Aubrey Bursch is founder + CEO of Easy School Marketing. She’s also a mom, lover of green smoothies and Peloton, and podcast host. She is passionate about supporting small + independent schools to increase enrollment, retention, and revenue.
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[00:00:00] Hello. Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Clays. And I’m Aubrey Burch. We’re so excited you’re here with us today cuz we have something special for you. Yes. We took Mindful School Marketing on the road. It was the first time that we traveled. We went to the National Small Schools Conference at the Krefeld School outside of Philadelphia or in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
[00:00:23] We had a wonderful time meeting people and being together and chatting for this podcast. And it was really fun to set up the podcast like, I think we wanna do this more. Right Tara? It was like so much fun just taking it on the road, like setting it up in different locations around the school and just hearing from people as they enjoyed the conference.
[00:00:43] Um, it was one of my, one of the fa most. Best experience I think I’ve had at a conference. Yeah, it was a really fun way to do it, and we’re super grateful to everybody at Krefeld School and National Small Schools Conference for welcoming us and allowing us to set up and, and really hear from people about their experience.
[00:01:00] And we’re really thrilled to be sharing that with you, um, on this episode today. So if you were there, you might hear yourself and if you weren’t there, um, you can take a listen and hear about the experiences that some people had. Uh, and so I mean, Aubrey, let’s talk a little bit about the concept of conferences, because I think now it’s like a peak conference season.
[00:01:18] There are conferences happening all over, um, professional development and what conferences mean in all industries, right? It’s a way for people to meet each other and get together and learn. Um, why don’t we talk just for a few minutes about the value of conferences and professional development opportunities like this National Small Schools Conference.
[00:01:36] Absolutely. I love this topic because I think we’re in a unique situation. Just, you know, during covid, a lot of our professional development, quote unquote, was like staying up with the, the policies. Right? Um, and now we’re coming out of, like, I, I’ve seen just this past year an explosion in professional development and it, whether it’s virtual or in-person, everyone is like, Really thirsty and ready to learn.
[00:01:59] And I think that says a lot. First of all, I think obviously if you’re in a school, you’re open to learning. You’re, you’re learning constantly. Um, but I, I think it also speaks to our need in whether you’re in marketing, admissions, development, you’re ahead of school, um, to. Really, um, listen to what’s happening outside the world, understand what the, what new things and technology and tools are out there, and how we can use them to benefit our, you know, our roles in schools and also our schools, uh, you know, and forward our school’s mission.
[00:02:33] Um, there’s just so many things out there that we need. To understand and know as school leaders to really do our job, um, to the best of our ability at our schools. And this is the time to do it. Um, I think everyone’s coming together and really, um, learning new things, and that’s exciting. It’s a really exciting time.
[00:02:53] What did you think, Tara? Yeah, I, I found it to be probably, uh, something that is re-energizing. I mean, the opening the keynote speaker at the beginning to Dent Smith. Was phenomenal. And I think everyone that we spoke to, and people will mention this I’m sure in the interviews that we share, he was just so inspirational and I think just really gave you a new energy, um, if you’re in the field of education, of how to think about it and how to make it better.
[00:03:19] So I think one thing that conferences do is they do sort of light a little spark and remind you of why you do what you do. And then the other thing, um, And, and before I started the Mindful School Marketing podcast with you, I actually had another podcast, um, which was called Hallway Chats, and that was for the WordPress community.
[00:03:38] And it was based on the fact that when we go to conferences, we end up having such value in those conversations in the hallways of these conferences. And so I found, um, that at this conference, um, In the hallways was actually outside in a beautiful setting, even though it was really cold. Um, you know, having the opportunity to meet people, not just sit in a session and learn statically, but there was a lot of interactive, uh, session, um, stuff happening as well.
[00:04:06] And then, you know, lunchtime and great. Uh, evening activities as well. Were an opportunity to, for people to really connect with each other, share their ch challenges, their experiences, their wins, all of those things. And so I think on top of the amazing content that’s happening at these sessions, there really is nothing like being in person with people and having the opportunity to just have conversations that flow from one thing to another.
[00:04:32] So I think you’ll hear people talking about that too, and just the value of being with people who share your same, um, experiences and challenges. Absolutely. I think, um, people enjoy that connection and it, it does, it, it, it re-energizes us for the next school year. Like we’re those connections and those, those things outside our, our, you know, our school’s world, right?
[00:04:55] We’re talking to people in a similar position, you know, across the country. Who have like different, the same challenges, but might have a new spin on things. And it’s just like those exchanges of contacts, like people were saying, Hey, I’ll email you about that. Or, you know, let’s set up like a time to have virtual coffee or something like that.
[00:05:12] I, I think that was just really neat to see all those connections being made. Um, and in such a, a wonderful and open setting. Like I felt like there was. I think the sign of a good conference is like you have great speakers, right? And you have a variety of content that kind of meets everyone’s needs, but you also have those spaces where people can have those conversations, right?
[00:05:32] Where it’s not just back to back of, you know, x, y, and Z conference, you know, session, but it’s really that time where you can sit down and have an informal conversation with someone and really get to know them. Um, and I think that’s what this conference, you know, does for small school leaders as well as other conferences across the country.
[00:05:49] Yeah, it’s really great opportunity. So we’re excited to share some little, just a couple little snippets with some people who attended this conference. So, um, stick with us and take a listen and hear about the National Small Schools Conference. I’m Dan Kunitz. I’m a middle school science teacher here at the Kret School.
[00:06:07] So exciting to have everybody here. Um, what a great group to connect with, especially after years. Uh, Losing some time with the pandemic and all. Great to have this conference back on campus. Um, it’s so exciting to have all these incredible ideas from small schools all over the country. Hello, my name is George Lesnik and I’m the head of the Kraft House School.
[00:06:30] In 2007, I attended the first National Small Schools conference in Falmouth Academy in Fouth, Massachusetts. And I remember being in a breakout session and the facilitator asked us to go around the room and. Say what we did every day. And he said, I know what your job descriptions are, I know what your title is, but tell me what you actually do in a day.
[00:06:51] And the very first person said, I plunge toilets and I changed light bulbs. And everyone in the room started head bobbing. And that’s when I realized the importance of a, of a small schools conference, four small schools. And so I attended, I think the first seven in at Falmouth Academy. And then, uh, They needed a new host.
[00:07:13] And so we’ve been honored to host it for the seventh time this year. And um, yeah, it’s a small conference for small schools. You know, George Lesnik, who’s the head of school at Krefeld, works really hard, um, to bring in incredible keynote speakers. And so we were honored, uh, with our keynote speakers at this conference.
[00:07:33] They all bring great insight and understanding to our leaders. Um, all of the sessions are geared towards small school leaders. Um, I went to one hosted by Brooke Harrell, which was incredible. Uh, and I’m very excited by her insights and takeaways for, um, uh, heads and board leaders. So that was a great win for me.
[00:07:57] I wanna talk a little bit about the opening keynote Ted Dender Smith several years ago when his, uh, documentary Most Likely to Succeed came out. Um, I saw it as fast as I could, um, and it blew me away, quite honestly. It really portrayed education in a way that I believe it should be. And then a friend of mine, Henry Fairfax, who’s now the head of Concord Academy, gave me a copy of Ted’s book, what School Could Be.
[00:08:25] So this year, when the steering committee was meeting, uh, talking about potential keynotes, um, I saw Ted’s book sitting in my office, and I thought to myself, This is, this is who we need. This is a guy who’s using his platform to be an agent of change in education. And we do need more of Ted in this world.
[00:08:45] So I met with Ted. We had a long talk, I think we met via Zoom probably over an hour. He really liked what we were doing here, and so he agreed to be the keynote. And I just wanna say that what we heard to open up the National Small Schools Conference this year, um, was so impactful and meaningful to.
[00:09:04] Everyone who was in that audience, so, um, we’re just, we’re just excited that he agreed to be with us. Hi, I’m Dr. Casey Hitchcock and I am the head of school at Lynn Haven School. And this is my first year at the National Small School Conference. I think the keynote, everybody, you know, we love Ted. It was so powerful, um, being able to give ourselves permission and celebrate our purpose.
[00:09:29] Um, especially those of us who are. Outside the box already, you know, scratching the traditional off of our anything that we do. Um, I think that was really powerful. And then today, just talking about auxiliary programming, ways to bring in revenue for a small school. Um, anything that is revenue outside of tuition is essential for staying open.
[00:09:52] And, um, just getting word out about your school, I think just for us, um, We have all the pieces there and, uh, one of our biggest concerns was bandwidth. Being a small school, um, and being willing to bite the bullet and bring somebody on board whose sole job is auxiliary revenue, um, and not the day-to-day operations of a school, I think was a really powerful message that I heard Loud and clear.
[00:10:22] My name is Kevin Kunst. I am the head of school at Evansville Day School in Evansville, Indiana. Uh, here at the National Small Schools Conference, I, I really enjoyed getting to talk to a lot of my peers, uh, and look at things in different ways, particularly in thinking about what schools are like post pandemic and sort of how we are reemerging and kind of going into reentry post pandemic.
[00:10:42] I described in one session as a participant that I feel like all year long, I just answered the question, how is the school year going with, well, it’s just really nice to feel normal. Uh, and then at the end of the school year, upon reflecting and even talking with my own faculty, I, I stood up in front of ’em and I said, I’ve just been lying all year.
[00:11:00] It hasn’t really been that normal. Uh, and I expressed my appreciation to them for all the crazy that they did to adapt to what a kind of new normal is and what the changing environment of schools is. And so it’s been really interesting to hear different ideas about. Re-engagement of families, re-engagement of students, the different struggles that students are having in classrooms and classroom management, uh, and hearing all kinds of cool ideas about how to, uh, possibly tackle those issues.
[00:11:24] So my presentation was on handbooks and what some of the common omissions are and how to think about handbooks holistically. And so I think a big point for us, for Katie Kesner and myself who did the presentation, Is to really think about how does a handbook play into all elements of your school community and life, and how can you use it as a tool rather than just a reactionary device.
[00:11:47] And so we tried to share our experiences, uh, Katie and the development of handbooks and, and me kind of putting ’em into implementation into a school. Uh, in the different ways that you can think about taking the handbook and being much more proactive with it than just waiting around for it to be a, a reactive device when the emergency or crisis happens.
[00:12:07] Hi, I’m Catherine Casey Quigley. I’m the co-founder and co-director of Ponic Community School. We are based on Eastern Long Island. We’re an early childhood through eighth grade school and we just completed our 11th year. Uh, this is our third time to this conference and we just. Love it. Um, I think I’m gonna get emotional, so bear with me.
[00:12:28] Um, because, you know, as leaders of a school, we do go to different conferences and we have found this one to be the most beneficial and useful one of all the conferences out there for small schools, the fact that it’s targeted and tailored to, uh, us. Is very, very meaningful and it, it feels a little bit like therapy.
[00:12:48] Um, there’s so much to be gained from spending time with people at the end of a school year who’ve just gone through what you’ve gone through and can understand it from such a similar lens and perspective. Uh, when you’re really in it, you feel a little bit, you know, like an island and you’re not, you don’t even have time to think about the fact that there’s other people going through the same thing.
[00:13:08] You’re so immersed in the many different hats that you wear and the daily crisises and the daily excitement. And so then coming here and connecting with people who’ve been through the same types of daily crises and daily excitements and learning from what they’ve done and, and are doing is just a wonderful, uh, sort of treat at the end of the hard year.
[00:13:31] Hi, I’m Todd Orison. I’m the executive director at North Country School in Camp Treetops in Lake Placid, New York. We’re, uh, grades four to nine progressive boarding school. Uh, for children who, uh, wanna experience life and wanna experience life through learning and learning through life. And I came to the Small Schools conference because I, I knew that there was a, there was a strong cohort of people who thought, um, it had a like-minded ideas of the importance of a small school community and how impactful that is, certainly on all of the students, but also the families involved with the schools.
[00:14:04] And, and as a. Community member at my school is a faculty in what it feels like to be part of a small school, a school, and a small community, and see the growth of all of our students, uh, as they grow through our schools. And, uh, it certainly is not a linear path, especially with the age group that we’re working with kids grades four to nine, and, and to recognize that it can be messy and.
[00:14:25] Uh, and we do have to break some eggs every once in a while. Hi, I am America Siegfried. I’m the Director of Communications and Donor Engagement at the Walden School in Media, Pennsylvania. I wanna talk about a lesson I had, um, and it was about, um, vuca. And so VUCA stands for Volatility, uncertainty, uncertainty, chaos and Ambiguity.
[00:14:47] And the big takeaway that I had was actually leaning into all of the above and facing it head on. And having those hard conversations and going through that discovery process, because that’s when change happens and it’s kind of like, you know, getting comfortable, feeling uncomfortable, and, um, trying to foster growth within your institution along the way.
[00:15:08] My name is Shannon Timney. I’m here from the PE Community School, um, on Long Island. Um, this is my second time at the conference. Um, this time I presented, which was kind of amazing, and it was exciting to talk to people before and after. It was a little nerve wracking at the beginning, but now I feel like I’m connecting much more with people because they kind of know somewhat about our school.
[00:15:33] Um, I’m here because it’s a wonderful place for us to meet with other people that have, uh, very similar size schools, um, that have been around for the same amount of time, which is unusual at other conferences. So I feel like that’s what’s special about this. Um, I love the diversity of the breakout groups, so there are so many different options where, um, my school and partners who came with me, uh, we’ve been able to like spread out and really, uh, touch on key things like, you know, things about enrollment, things about, uh, specifically about management, things about, um, curriculum and, uh, so all different areas.
[00:16:06] Um, it’s been really great. My presentation was, um, entitled, the Celebration of Learning, and our school ends each trimester with a huge celebration honoring, uh, student learning. We invite the community in, um, and it’s like a true event. Um, so the foundation of everything that we do is in project based learning.
[00:16:24] Um, and so specifically, uh, this highlights that and ultimately this culminating piece is, um, a big project, you know, to students in deciding. How they want to share what they’ve learned, what are the most important ways, and how do they wanna make it happen. Um, and then our teachers are facilitators that just try to help make that happen.
[00:16:41] So it’s a beautiful assessment piece. Um, thinking about like the leaders that we’re, we are speaking to assessment tea, uh, for the teachers of the students, for us, of our teachers, and the school as a whole. So it was really lovely. Like, I wanna present more. So I’m, my name is Matthew Bradley. I’m the head of school at Friends School, mulah Hill, which is a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Quaker Day School in South Jersey.
[00:17:05] Um, this is, I’ve been to this, uh, conference, um, every time that it’s been held since I think 2018. So it’s been a few years and it is one of the conferences that, um, as, as I think Beth was just saying, you know, it’s, it’s our people. It’s great to be here because it’s, um, you know, a lot of people who share the same kind of experiences that.
[00:17:23] Um, that are somewhat unique, um, or particular to small schools. So it’s always great to be among friends, um, so to speak. Um, I’m feeling very good right now cause we just came off of giving a presentation, giving one of the workshops, which seemed to be really well received, um, where we told our story about an experience we had through our school.
[00:17:41] And, um, people who attended seemed to, um, to resonate with that and appreciate the, the story that we had to tell so that, that feels, um, feels great. Hi, I’m Judy Corona Carow. I’m the Director of Development at Friends School, moca Hill. I guess my big takeaway, I love coming to this because I feel like I’m with Kindred spirits, so they understand I’m a shop of one.
[00:18:06] There’s many people here that are shop of one or a shop of, they have multiple tasks that they perform, so I like the comradery of it. Uh, I really enjoy the dinner on the avenue. That’s probably one of my favorite parts cuz you’re sitting there and you’re talking to everybody and just really getting the opportunity, you know, during the summer when it’s a little bit quieter to spend some time with.
[00:18:28] Those who are in similar situations and to kind of pick their brain and to get some good ideas. I would say one of the things that I picked up and it was just a reiteration of something that I’ve done before, is we have a parent coffee that went away during Covid and I really wanna make sure I bring that back cuz that’s really a way for the first day of school.
[00:18:46] For families to re bond, get to know new families, get to see each other, and it kind of starts the, the year off on a fresh start. So making sure that our, all of our community feels engaged and feels connected. Hi, I’m Ed Hollinger and I’m at the conference, uh, presenting on, um, the topic of leading small schools in uncertain times.
[00:19:09] I think most people would agree. We live in uncertain times. We certainly live in interesting times. And, uh, in my work with independent schools in transitional leadership, what I find is, um, there’s, there’s a need to do a deep dive conversation into looking at all of the uncertainty, the volatility, the complexity that surrounds us, and how can we lead our schools, lead our organizations to some level of stability.
[00:19:37] And also how can we do that for ourselves. I do a lot of work with, uh, Current and emerging school leaders. And one of the things I really focus on is a strategic self-awareness. I like to call it, uh, what, what are you good at? But also what are the potential derailers, I like to call them, what are the things that can get you off track when you’re not paying attention or when you’re, when you’re under stress?
[00:20:03] Um, key takeaways for me. Uh, there, there are many. Uh, I, I think the one most important thing is just to be here with people. I. Um, we’re, we’re all, we, we have a common bond. We’re all doing the same thing. We’re in the same business. Uh, and that’s just really helpful to rub shoulders with people and talk about, uh, what’s important to them and where their, where their problems are, and do a deep dive into that.
[00:20:27] I think in terms of the workshops, and what I really appreciated was, um, the concept of, uh, surveying families. And doing that as a tool through your, uh, enrollment and inquiry documents. I thought that was, was brilliant. It, it, it’s, it’s more than just asking, uh, simple questions of how’d you hear about us.
[00:20:49] Um, that may be helpful, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot more information that we can glean by asking questions and using that platform to do it. My name is Liz Dover. I am the head of school at the GreenMount School in Baltimore, Maryland. Um, one of the most wonderful things about this conference was remembering why we do what we do.
[00:21:09] Um, what is the purpose of school and that remembrance to celebrate and be creative, and to remember that not everybody’s on the same path. And it’s our job as school leaders to not only help children find the path that they need to be on, but to celebrate and support any path that they take. Uh, my name is Kristi Marelli and I am from Philadelphia.
[00:21:31] One of the reasons why we keep hosting this conference and why I keep organizing this conference is because it, this kind of help doesn’t really exist in any sort of quantity for small schools anywhere. So we go to the bigger conferences and they’re great, and we learn a lot of stuff, but you know, they’re talking about things and you’re like, oh, that sounds really great.
[00:21:49] If you have a seven person admissions office, we have a one person admissions office. So one of the reasons why, We host it, and I enjoy organizing it is because I want it to exist for myself in like, for our school to be able to get something out of it. Um, but as I’m walking around, like just kind of, you know, looking in the rooms and stuff as the different, uh, sessions are going on, just seeing like the collective head nods that are happening, and I’m like, yeah, these are my people.
[00:22:12] These, you know, everybody sort of understands things, um, you know, together that only small schools kind of understand, you know, the way that, the way that things work. Um, And just kind of like me, you know, getting reinvigorated meeting and talking to all these people that are really passionate about what they’re doing and genuinely care about kids and like want to, you know, help kids learn.
[00:22:31] So, Um, is what I love about this conference. I hope you enjoyed hearing from our mini conference attendees. It was so much fun to be there. We’re so grateful to have had the opportunity to take the Mindful School Marketing Podcast on the road to the National Small Schools Conference. So thank you for everyone that we interviewed and thank you for everyone who hosted us there.
[00:22:50] We’re so grateful. Yes, thank you, and we hope to see you at other conferences in the future. Have a great day, everybody. Bye bye.