The Power of a Conference
I believe attending conferences is one of the most dynamic ways for a professional to develop.
I recently attended the IETC conference in Springfield, IL, and I left, as I typically do from such a conference, with the indelible notion that there simply aren’t many better forms of professional development in existence. I find this of great interest, as typically, many school leaders do not seem to share my sentiment.
Perhaps one of the most oft cited criticisms of a conference by administration is the cost and potential lack of accountability for those in attendance. As opposed to sending people to conferences, the alternative is typically to bring in an expert to address the entire staff. Unfortunately, while in theory that allows more people access to the same information, in practice, it tends to be much less effective than planned due to a myriad of distracting issues. Hopefully, someday soon, people will start making this part of their normal inservice routine to facilitate greater results. Regardless, there are too many things working against the success of the mass inservice model (sitting everyone in terribly uncomfortable lunch tables or folding chairs, having speakers speak of the importance of allowing student movement and attention breaks while delivering said message in an uninterrupted 3 hour information marathon, really, really bad PowerPoints).
Seven years ago, a friend of mine won the Milken Educator Award. A few months after he won it, he was being interviewed for a journal, and the interviewer asked her first question. It was something to the effect of, “What has been the most instrumental factor in making you the excellent teacher you are today?” His answer came without pause. “Attending professional conferences.” My friend said at that point the interviewer smacked the table, turned off the recorder and said, “You know, I’ve now interviewed a number of Milken Award winners. Every single one had that same answer.” She went on to elaborate that the reason this bothered her so much was that she used to be a principal, and she refused to send any of her staff members to conferences because she felt it wasn’t a judicious use of time or money. I think that says it all.
Something significant happens when a person attends a conference. All the daily noise of the routine gets silenced, and there comes a great sense of focus. By being away from the classroom for a couple days, and away from the demands of everyday life, a person can truly become immersed in learning more about the profession to which they are so dedicated. Conversations take place, connections are made, and a great deal of thought is given to what it is that’s happening in their own professional practice. It’s incredibly refreshing, to be honest.
One interesting movement in the current conference model has taken form the past several years, and that’s the idea of a virtual conference. The K12 Online Conference is a good example of this. The idea is to encapsulate all the good that occurs during a conference and make that available to people anywhere at anytime. I think it’s a noble effort, and I think some very good content has arisen from this idea, but I don’t think it will ever really be what some hope it could be. While I know there are a great number of people who have gained excellent insight and value from the K12 Online Conference, I know there are a greater number who have never tapped into the potential learning opportunity the online conference presents. Which is rather unfortunate, because there are some excellent thoughts and ideas coming out of the conference that are not being heard by enough people. The problem with a conference format like this is that the attendees lack that away from the routine focus that occurs by leaving town and going to an event. I think it’s a rather difficult sell to get teachers to really buy into the virtual conference idea. I believe if you’re looking to try it, though, this is an excellent way to start.
I believe there’s one more element that a virtual conference misses. The face to face human element. There’s something so entirely unique about getting to sit down and talk with people in person, and the connection allows you to apply more accurate context to a person who you’ve only met virtually. I know that I can’t avoid adding my own interpretation of a person’s personality while reading their communications online. I’ve found that every time I meet someone I follow on Twitter, I end up paying closer attention to what they are saying, and I have a better context to apply when reading the words they write. And I think this is one of the greatest parts of attending a conference. The connections that are made. It touches such an important part of who we are as social beings, and so often, the connections turn into the most invaluable of resources.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to attend a professional conference, remedy that as quickly as possible. Take the time, be open to new ideas, be prepared to be somewhat to entirely overwhelmed at points, and don’t be surprised if it changes you in ways you never expected.
Thanks to supervillain for the Flickr image.