Make the MOST of your Conference Experience!

Michelle Bulla, October 2018

If you’re anything like me, you’re a tad overwhelmed at a conference. Some or all of these questions might race through your mind:

• Where do I begin?
• Which workshops should I attend?
• How much networking should I do?
• How can move my professional work forward?

As someone who feels a conference can be a rather daunting adventure, one that other people surely manage better than I, I can relate to your concerns.

Here’s a plan which has worked fairly well for me in workshops with as few as 30 people, and conventions with as many as thousands. Some of these strategies took me a while to grow into, but there’s definitely something (and maybe several somethings) here for everyone in order to go home feeling enriched by the experience.

Where Do I Begin?

Regardless of any “pre-conference” preparation via skimming or scouring the agenda and offerings in advance, we can make the most of our time by actually slowing down a bit, and having a strategy that is both clear and loose, leaving room for “happy accidents,” as our dear old friend Bob Ross used to say.

• Start at registration – grab an ID, tote, and then find coffee / tea / hot water (that last one’s for me ;))
• Head in and find somewhere to take a seat, preferably with a view of what’s happening.
• Take a sip, smile, take in the scene, imagine a rewarding time, and breathe a little. This is going to be great!

Which workshops should I attend?

There are several theories on this one, but here are my top three strategies:

Choose one workshop directly related to our grade / genre / strength.

Find connections – i.e., our built-in tribe, those who already think / work / relate to us. Here we’ll find validation, easily meet new people (more on that later), and learn ways to fine-tune what we’re already immersed in. Theoretically, adjustments to our style or pedagogy will happen more quickly from these types of experiences, leading us to feel the conference was / is immediately relevant to us, to our core beliefs, and to our work.

Choose one workshop on a sub-topic / text / genre / strategy / method / in a grade that is new.

The idea here is to get out of our comfort zone. We know the most powerful learning comes from when we are stretching, when we are uncomfortable, when we feel vulnerable. We encourage our students to be fearless all the time, and we owe it to ourselves and our profession at large to be fearless ourselves. If we open our minds and practices to something new, we’ll get to learn something about the work that informs ours; whether it’s a grade below or a level or topic above or distanced from our own, we can see what our students are doing or might be able to do. We’ll begin to appreciate the bigger picture of education in our schools / districts, and be more informed about our students by learning what they might be experiencing from our colleagues. Education and teaching don’t happen in the vacuum that is our classroom. It’s really eye-opening to walk in our colleagues’ shoes for a bit. All that information helps us to be more aware of what’s going on in our field, and is more than likely to enhance the work we will be doing on Monday. And, lots of ideas are transferable with substitutions in text, complexity, or concept.

Choose one workshop to attend with a colleague / new friend.

Many things in life are simply better with friends, and learning experiences can become instantly less threatening when we have a buddy to share them with. The added bonus here is that when we’re participating, we’re creating a shared experience of excitement, enthusiasm, new ideas, and brainstorming is likely to happen as we chat with each other on the side or compare thoughts or think out loud about what we’re hearing. I’ve made some of the most significant progress in my work when I learned something new with a friend because I had someone to debrief later with, to try it out with, to use it as a springboard to something else with, to help me advocate for it when I returned to my school. I’ve even found that when I was in a workshop I didn’t love, just being in an enthused learning environment away from my school paved the way for creativity that sometimes was completely disconnected from the immediate experience but nonetheless valuable. Cue Bob Ross here!

How much networking should I do?

Whether networking is a goal or not, conferences are a great way to combat the feelings of isolation and loneliness many educators are prone to feeling. Human connection makes life more enjoyable, and we don’t need to be extroverts to reap the rewards of building bonds with others.

Here are some of my favorite ways to meet new people (and connect with those I only see at conferences!):

• Approach someone in a workshop.

• Start a casual conversation with someone we’ve seen several times already. Ask how their day is going and why. We’re in the same places, so I know we’ve got something in common.
• Head up to the presenter afterward with a compliment, comment, or question, especially if the experience was enjoyable. They’re presenting because they love their work and are eager to share it with us to enhance our work. As a frequent presenter, I can testify that those moments are the ones that make the work worthwhile. Our students don’t always appreciate the complexities of what we do for them and that’s ok, but when we can be truly seen by our colleagues in the field? Priceless.

• Approach an award winner and start a conversation.

• Where do they work?
• What’s important to them?
• What do they do precisely and have they been to this event before? If so, why’d they come back?
• Have they found what they were looking for? What is it?
• Are they on social media? Can we follow them?
• If the connection develops, maybe suggest connecting before Thanksgiving to check in / share / trade secrets.
• Congratulate them!

• Approach a couple vendors to find out what they have to offer.

• Say “hi,” and ask them how it’s going and what their most popular items are of late. Find out what educators elsewhere are using, which might be helpful.
• Sign up to receive emails / materials. Many vendors not only purvey resources but are also connected to sources of professional development. These connections broaden our understanding of the bigger picture of what’s happening outside our own domains back home, whether we have the ability to make purchasing decisions or not.

• Approach a board member / conference committee member.

• Meet the board! Let a board member know about a great workshop, brainstorm, meal, cocktail, publication idea, etc. Maybe say “thank you,” or offer a suggestion for how to make something better. Gratitude breeds happiness for both parties, and the business of educating certainly needs more of both, especially considering the challenges of the work we do.

How can I move my professional work forward?

This is a tricky one for me. I often see / hear / learn so many exciting things that I’m not sure how to start processing it all.

Here are a few ideas I find helpful. For me, this happens in a quiet place with a glass of wine at the end of the day before I go home to distractions:

• Add one (or more) new titles to a personal “to read” list.
Make a note as to why this title, and who recommended it. Think about how to actually make time to read it, and who to talk with about it afterward. Follow the author on social media if that appeals, and put it in a digital shopping cart.

• Reflect on how to implement something new.
Sketch out alterations to curriculum, text choices, objectives. Really think about what this might look like, what might be involved in making this change. Outline plans and thoughts and hopes and rationales now, while they’re fresh, and while the excitement is palpable. Identify people or resources that might be helpful, and someone to talk it over with to help make the idea start to become real.

• Identify a lesson / project / strategy / program / philosophy / student work to write about.
Whether we’re new to the field or not, we all have experienced teachable moments for ourselves and our colleagues at large. Be they successes, failures, restarts, or renewals, writing about these moments can help us to crystallize our thinking, identifying the educators we want to be in our work (works for me every time ;). Write up a “teachable moment,” and choose one of NYSEC’s three publications (blog, newsletter, journal) to submit it to. And, consider approaching someone inspiring to ask them to write up what they’ve done, inviting them to take their work to the next professional level: collegial sharing.

• Identify a workshop idea to present on for the next conference.
Risks reap rewards far beyond the immediately identifiable. Go for it!

• Identify a colleague / team / program to nominate for an award at next year’s conference.
Good vibes = a great tribe. When we build others up, we own our role in boosting the morale in our colleagues and schools. I can’t think of a more meaningful investment we can make in our profession.

• Explore the possibility of getting involved.
NYSEC works hard in all we do, and we can’t do it without the dedication and enthusiasm of a lot of people. We want to grow and strengthen our organization. Speak to a board member about the work of the Executive Board, and if inclined, consider ways to get involved with the work of NYSEC.

Now, let’s congratulate each other for all we had to do to get here. It was a lot, and it wasn’t easy. Nonetheless, here we are and we’re going to have a fabulous time getting better at what we love because we deserve it! Let the learning begin!

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