More than Just a Mastermind

A group dedicated to peer support to overcome education challenges has evolved into much more through connections and collaboration.

Topics: Pandemic Leadership, Professional Learning

New for the 2020-2021 school year, NAESP created NAESP Mastermind groups for school leaders. The goal? Help members solve problems through input and advice from their peers. Now, halfway through the inaugural cohort, facilitated by fellows of the NAESP Centers for Advancing Leadership, it’s accomplished that and much more. Organically evolving into a well-connected, collaborative, and supportive network of school leaders, NAESP Mastermind has built a culture of trust and psychological safety during discussions on relevant and real issues affecting them as principals and assistant principals and education as a whole.

Focused on identifying challenges and finding strategies to overcome them, NAESP Mastermind groups have collaborated on everything from staff capacity and having tough conversations to educational standards and building relationships with school families. Here are six topics they’ve discussed and takeaways that you can apply in your leadership journey.

  1. Building staff capacity to lean on each other. Social-emotional learning isn’t just for students. All educators in a school building—now more than ever—need emotional support. School faculty and staff are uniquely positioned to understand each other’s needs—so it’s important to find ways to enable them to lean on each other for support during challenging times. Takeaways: Building capacity to be a support system for each other looks like building self- and social-awareness: understanding how each colleague responds to stressful situations, such as those brought on by the pandemic, and knowing the sort of support each colleague needs to survive stressful situations. Put support systems in place and provide times for colleagues to meet and articulate their fears and share strategies that work. Creative ways to check in with staff range from a google-form to administrative checklists for check-ins and prioritizing and monitoring staff well-being.
  2. Aligning Professional Standards of Educational Leadership (PSEL) standards. No matter the challenges school leaders face, ensuring the solution aligns to PSEL standards is key in finding success. With recent issues like the pandemic and new demands on educators, it has become increasingly harder to balance this. According to NAESP’s new Leaders We Need Now (LWNN) research series, principals were forced to prioritize some of the 10 PSEL standards over others. Takeaways: To avoid prioritizing one PSEL standard over another, revisit your vision and mission statement (standard 1) and note that all remaining standards are aligned with the way in which you realize that vision. In a pandemic, community of care (standard 5) often takes precedence, but it’s key to ensure equitable practices and cultural responsiveness (standard 3) are ongoing as we drive instruction and assessment (standard 4) for school improvement (standard 10), requiring professional capacity (standard 6) and maintenance of a professional community for teachers and staff (standard 7). During the pandemic, meaningful engagement of families has taken on a deeper meaning (standard 8) as increased collaboration with schools becomes a necessity. Operations and management (standard 9) has had to shift along with the pivoting of class formats, asynchronous or synchronous. It feels as though the world has turned upside down but as you can see, all standards matter, and ethical behavior (standard 2) remains a constant.
  3. Treating your staff as scholarly professionals. This means you put systems and structures in place that provide them the scholarly resources necessary to inform their practice, which supports PSEL standards 6 and 7. Takeaways: School leaders can provide the time needed to collaborate and ask questions to gain insight into whether your teachers are being supported in the best ways possible. For example, is your school’s professional learning community (PLC) really a true PLC? Do you factor funding for your teachers to join professional organizations and subscribe to professional journals? Do you dialogue with teachers about recent articles relative to their work?
  4. Acknowledging that the pandemic has created a mind shift. “Your teachers are not broken,” said one NAESP Mastermind member. Acknowledging that teaching and learning look different—and likely will never return to pre-pandemic ways—ensures your teachers feel seen and heard as you navigate pandemic learning together. Takeaways: Empower your teachers to celebrate the fact that they have finally joined the ranks of online teachers; they are adept at pivoting from on ground to online format at the blink of an eye, so to speak. Their knowledge and ability to integrate technology in teaching and learning has skyrocketed.
  5. Courageously communicating tough information. Discussing difficult topics and information can be, well, difficult. Part of being a leader is overcoming this discomfort and diving in to ensure your feedback for your teachers is efficient and effective. Takeaways: Conveying tough information to your school communities can be a little easier using the Oreo cookie approach, or a “feedback sandwich,” if you will, that provides your opinion, a reason, and an explanation. (Bonus: If you’re joining us in Louisville for the 2022 Pre-K–8 Principals Conference, register for pre-conference workshops July 14, including a session focused on “Having Hard Conversations” with presenter Jennifer Abrams.)
  6. Dealing with difficult parents. The mix of a global pandemic and social injustice with polarized communities in highly politicized environment isn’t conducive to success—especially in schools and for school leaders who have found themselves with more responsibility than ever and new demands. Dealing with passionate parents requires trust from both parties, and though that’s hard to come by these days, it’s not impossible. Takeaways: One strategy to deal with difficult parents is to first thank them for their input, share the policies that drive our actions, and ask them to reconcile what they are asking for to the realities of what is occurring. Require their engagement in the communication and implementation of whatever it is they think can be done differently or better. At times, school leaders will have to say no, but explain to them that the suggestion would have been great at a different time; to ensure all students are cared for during the pandemic, that one suggestion might not be equitable, as it would not meet everyone’s need, for example. Picking up the phone goes a long way: Too often we think a reply or response to social media or in an email is ideal, but picking up the phone and having a conversation can help to identify what the real concerns are and find intentional ways to resolve issues.

Learn more about NAESP Mastermind at and stay tuned for information about how you can be a part of next year’s cohort. The application process opens in the spring.

Andrea Thompson is a graduate school professor for Ed Leadership and Research; a Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment coordinator for a charter school division; a fellow of the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership; and an NAESP Mastermind facilitator.

Jessica Cabeen is a principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota; a fellow of the NAESP Center for Middle-Level Leadership; and an NAESP Mastermind facilitator.