When the calendar flips to March, it’s like Opening Day for education conferences. Whether you’re a teacher, a coach, an administrator, or an advocate, there’s a conference waiting for you. From nearly 20 years of going to conferences (I started even as a pre-service teacher), being a presenter, and planning several state-wide conferences myself, I’ve learned a thing or two about the whole experience. And I want to share some of my favorite tips so you can make the most of these great professional learning opportunities:
PLANNING FOR THE CONFERENCE
1. Prepare ahead of time as much as possible (but if you don’t have time, it’s really NOT one more thing to beat yourself up about). In other words, take the time to learn how the conference is organized: When are the keynotes or plenary sessions? (These are the big sessions for everyone to attend versus the smaller, more specialized breakout sessions.) Sometimes big conferences are spread out in many buildings and it’s good to know ahead of time “the lay of the land.” Many conferences will also provide session information ahead of time (on their website or even via conference apps you can download to your smartphone) so that you can map out your schedule before even getting there.
2. When choosing which sessions to attend, look at who is presenting the session titles. This is one of the first tips I learned about putting together a great itinerary. Many session titles will spin the overall conference theme (which makes perfect sense), but it’s the presenter that will bring the session to life. So take the time to read not just what will be discussed, but who will be discussing it, and you’ll find yourself happy with the choices you make.
3. Pay attention to the type of sessions listed in the schedule so that you don’t end up at a large, group lecture when you were expecting a small, interactive discussion (or vise versa). Most conferences offer plenaries or keynotes, demonstrations or panel presentations, roundtables, and workshops.
4. Stay in the conference hotel if possible (or else really close to it). Registration is close, the vendors are close, and usually the big sessions are right there. (And if the weather gets icky, it’s nice to not worry about schlepping around coats, umbrellas, etc.) It is true that these hotels are generally more pricey, but they often have a conference rate and once you factor in taxis or rental cars and parking, it’s about even. And consider looking for roommates to help defer costs.
WHILE YOU’RE AT THE CONFERENCE
5. Partner up with colleagues or friends. Let’s face it, there will be more great sessions than you can possibly attend. That’s when you need a little conference crowdsourcing. Grab a group of colleagues, agree to split up and go to different sessions, then plan on meeting up later over dessert to share resources and what you learned.
6. Take your lunch. As much as I would like to advocate for a real lunch (not the 20-minute version you’re used to at school), I always pack protein bars and trail mix just in case that “must see” session is near lunchtime and the lines for food wind out the door.
7. Get social — on social media, that is. Over the past several years, some of my favorite conference discussions are the ones that happen on backchannels. Learn the conference hashtags and amplify your conference experience by tweeting out your favorite quotes, bookmarking resources others share, and meeting up with people you follow on Twitter who are also attending.
8. Don’t be afraid of the speaker’s hours. Many conferences have speaker’s hours or times set aside where you can sit down and have conversations with the presenters. I used to be really nervous about taking advantage of this; I mean, what would I say? But then I was one of the presenters, and having speaker’s hours made me realize what a great chance this is to have one-on-one conversations.
9. Swag! Conferences wouldn’t be complete without all the free goodies — and you can snag more by visiting vendors. As you’re learning about the newest technology, book series, or “friends of education,” you can also fill up that conference tote with all kinds of free stuff. Pens, pencils, magnets, books, more bags, etc. My students always know when I’ve come back from a conference because the “pen jar” is full again!
WHEN YOU RETURN HOME AFTER THE CONFERENCE
10. Share with your school. One of the best ways to thank your school for a great conference experience is to share what you learned with colleagues, with administrators, and with your students. Not only is this a perfect way to reflect on your experience, but it usually betters your chance of getting to go again next year!
Of course, the most important secret to having a great conference experience is to go with an open mind regarding new ideas, a willingness to meet new people, the courage to ask the tough questions, and the fortitude to implement something you’ve learned once you’re back home. So brush up on your acronyms, find travel deals online, write sub plans, and maybe even prepare and submit a presentation of your own.