Getting the most out of conferences: Advice for admins and teachers

Our large local education conference is coming up soon, so I thought I would share a few thoughts on the value and waste of conferences. In truth, education conferences can be the best or worst of professional development. It really depends on who goes, what they do there, and what they do afterward. woolsthorpe

I think conferences are extremely valuable for all educators. It isn’t just the sessions, but the networking, posters, online resources, and commercial expos that round out a very rich learning experience.

One of my primary concerns is that many time conferences are filled with people that probably don’t need to be there. Too often, the people at an education conference, especially an innovative education (ed tech conference?), are the teachers who are already early adopters and innovators. These folks grow some, but I can’t help but think that it’s the late adopters and the laggards that would be best to send to a big conference. Obviously, there needs to be a mix. I can’t imagine a conference filled with people who are hostile toward change. However, for many people, they just need to see great ideas in action in an environment where they can talk out their anxieties and questions with others beyond their own ecosystem.

Here are some humble suggestions for teachers and administrators to get the very best from conference opportunities.

Administrators:

  1. Rotate a mix of staff through local and even national conferences. Build going to conferences part of the culture, and make sure everyone goes to at least one every other year. More, if feasible. Some are free to attend, but may require leave from work or substitute pay. Become educated on all of the opportunities possible.
  2. Send teachers who need additional inspiration or training, not just the ones who ask to go. Pair them with an early adopter. It can be a great kickstarter.
  3. Help teachers have large, interesting questions developed going in to the conference. What do they hope to learn? In what ways will they want to grow. However, don’t bog this down with a bunch of paperwork or accountability. Keep it fun and somewhat casual. After all, we don’t know what we don’t know. If they are clueless, assign them a question that suits them and the team. There will be a list of ideas for this at the end of the post.
  4. Accompany them! There is no greater opportunity for co-learning than discussions in between sessions. Plan time to meet as a team at the conference, and have discussions (and take notes) while they are in the moment and everything is fresh in their mind.
  5. Encourage socializing. Some administrators frown on this. I have no idea why. Encourage your staff to make connections and socialize. Be ok with a session when they just sit in the lounge and visit.  Let them go to happy hour afterwards with people from other districts. Want to guess what they are going to talk about? They will talk about the ideas from the conference. In my experience, that morning coffee time, skipped session and happy hour times have been as beneficial as many of the sessions.
  6. Ask for them to write a narrative of notes for the conference. Some may pick away at this while the conference is going on, and some may do it after the fact, but my suggestion is to have it due within a day of the return from the conference. Things fade quickly after they jump back into their routine. Likewise, do the same and share with them in the same time. Shared documents or folders are great for this.
  7. Ask them to present to staff. This could be sharing at a meeting, writing a formal blog post, or collaborating on a newsletter based on the conference learning.
  8. No money to send anyone to conferences? Host your own! Many districts are finding success with this model. They draw upon their own expertise and put out a call for proposals. They bring in people from all over their state or region, and then in turn use what is made in the conference to add to professional development funds.

For teachers:

  1. Have FUN! Conferences are like learning parties. Socialize, make jokes, share ideas, over-caffeinate, wear a goofy hat. Everyone enjoys learning when they are having a good time.
  2. If it is a traditional conference, think about how you feel taking the role of the student. What do you appreciate from presenters? What do you find difficult? It is easy to see how uncomfortable chairs and monotone delivery make kids less fond of school when you notice the same things in some sessions. It is also easy to see how interactive, engaging, and energetic delivery makes learning fun. Take those observations back to your classroom.
  3. Meet and tweet. At conferences, Twitter is the business card. Take note of the hashtag of the conference, and get involved. Follow conference goers and use these connections as a continuation of your learning community. Some of the best professional connections I have began at a conference.
  4. Don’t go to sessions about what you know. Go to sessions about what you don’t know. That is tough. We are drawn to sessions that align with our practice, and sometimes this can be a good way to validate what we do. But to really stretch ourselves, we need to start with a few big questions, and then go to sessions or connect with people who can help us further our understanding. There is a list of such questions below.
  5. Take notes in an efficient way. Sometimes, most of the materials are posted on the website. No need to take notes on the slides then. I find it better to take notes based on finding the materials rather than detailed info. I like to stay in the moment, but I try to stop every few hours to make notes on what I learned and where to follow up on it. Others sort of slow-blog all the way through. Whatever works for you, but make sure it doesn’t interfere with your ability to be in the moment of learning.

Of course, how to get the best out of a conference is a matter of individual taste. I think the important thing to realize is that when districts foot the bill for someone to go to a conference, they want to know that it is a good investment. More importantly, most teachers and administrators enjoy an opportunity to network and learn.

Some guiding question ideas for those attending a conference:

  1. What am I hearing a lot about in education circles that I don’t feel educated enough about to know how it fits into my practice?
  2. What are other people or schools doing with something our school is just beginning to implement?
  3. What is the major source of frustration in my practice right now? What might I see or learn here that could help alleviate it?
  4. Why am I not having success with…
  5. Who is better at … than me? What can I learn from them?
  6. Who else is working on …? How could I connect with them and collaborate?
  7. What else can be done with …?
  8. Most importantly: What is being offered that I know nothing at all about?
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