How the NAESP Conference Shapes My School Year and Fuels My Personal and Professional Growth

A New York principal shares how she found her place among like-minded school leaders after attending her first NAESP conference in 2021—and what keeps her coming back.

The NAESP summer conference is an eagerly anticipated event that spans three days, offering school leaders an invaluable opportunity for professional learning, leadership development, and networking. As principals gather from around the country, this conference provides a platform for learning and connecting with other educational leaders. It has the power to shape an entire year, fueling personal and professional growth in countless ways.

In 2024, NAESP is teaming up with the National Association of Secondary School Principals to present UNITED: The National Conference on School Leadership. This joint effort, to be held in Nashville July 15-17, will no doubt offer school leaders unparalleled opportunities to learn and connect. If you’re thinking about attending, consider this your personal invitation.  

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

In July 2021, I attended my first NAESP conference, in Chicago, not knowing much about NAESP and knowing even less about the people who attend. I had only been a principal for about two years and was nervous, to say the least. I didn’t know what to expect, whether I would belong, and how much attending that conference would change my life both professionally and personally.

But from the moment I walked into the convention center, I was greeted by a sea of like-minded educators who shared a common goal of professional growth and prioritizing their own learning. I knew I had found my place. Despite traveling with two other principals, the beauty of the conference is the diverse array of sessions available, tailored to meet the specific goals of each person. There were times I found myself navigating the conference solo. I’m sharing this because going to the conference alone might seem overwhelming or uncomfortable, but many sessions started with opportunities to connect with fellow educators sitting nearby, sharing educational positions, reasons for attending the conference, and even social media handles. With NAESP—and at the annual conference—you are never alone.

Reap the Rewards—and Lots of Resources

The conference offers endless resources that you can learn from and take away with you to continue your learning even after the conference is over. People are always our best resource, and there are more than a hundred opportunities to learn from fellow educators, whether it’s attending a breakout session, listening to inspiring keynote speeches, talking with vendors, or just having casual discussions.

All of these opportunities also provide physical resources and materials to use and implement yourself. If you are unable to attend a session, many presenters share their presentations and materials on the conference app, or you can reach out to the presenter directly and ask for anything they are willing to share to learn more. Personally, I have reached out because I couldn’t attend certain sessions, and the presenters were more than willing to share anything they had, even giving me their phone numbers if I had further questions.

Make Meaningful Connections

At the core of the annual conference experience lies the power of connections. Principals and assistant principals forge meaningful relationships and establish strong professional networks that extend beyond the conference. On the first night of the 2021 conference, I went out to dinner with principals who are now close friends and part of my professional learning network. We speak often and even presented a breakout session together during the 2023 conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Opportunities for these connections include breakout sessions, zone meetings, receptions, and even something as simple as saying hello in the coffee line. Everyone is friendly and there for the same reasons as you. They’re open to sharing their contact information and social media handles, so even if you never cross paths with them again, you can continue to learn from them through their posts. These connections are invaluable and provide a support system, reminding you that you are not alone.

The Power of Professional Learning

The biggest draw for me is the professional development and learning opportunities I gain. Like all school leaders at the conference, I embrace a culture of continuous improvement, eagerly seeking out sessions that broaden my knowledge and sharpen my leadership skills.

The conference showcases the latest research, trends, and best practices in education, equipping principals with the insights and tools needed to navigate the complexities of the job. The 2024 UNITED conference sessions will focus on these themes:

  • Building Leadership Capacity
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Leveraging Student Voice and Agency
  • School Climate, Culture, and Inclusivity
  • Whole School Wellness

By immersing yourself in a rich learning environment, you are empowered to become an effective change agent and a champion of innovation within your school.

Catalyst for Growth

When you combine the resources, connections, and learning together, it’s impossible not to experience professional growth, and chances are you’ll experience personal growth as well.

Through engaging conversations and collaborative opportunities, you are exposed to diverse perspectives and innovative practices. There are opportunities to engage in thought-provoking discussions with peers, exchanging ideas and reflecting on your own practices. It’s up to you to get the most out of the conference and grow.

Because of the 2021 conference, I became more involved with NAESP. I presented at the 2022 conference and was featured as the principal spotlight in the November/December 2022 issue of Principal magazine. I now serve on the NAESP Editorial Advisory Board and the American Student Council Association Advisory Committee and have written an article and facilitated book studies for the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership.

After presenting on “Creating a Culture of Connections” in 2022, fellow principals came up to me to tell me how my presentation changed the trajectory of their school year. These encounters served as a powerful reminder of the significance of the conference but also provided me with a sense of fulfillment and purpose, knowing I have positively impacted the professional lives of others.

As you can (hopefully) see, this annual conference is a transformative experience that captures the spirit of educational leadership. It rejuvenates principals from the previous year and provides renewed energy to prepare for the upcoming year. I hope to see you in Nashville in 2024!

Tara Falasco is principal of Blue Point Elementary School in Blue Point, New York.