I’ve been to hundreds of education events as a speaker and/or attendee, and I think that has given me a different view of how you might want to attend a conference.
Here are some fairly random thoughts on how I would recommend going to an education conference.
Have A Purpose
First, consider what is the problem you want to solve by attending this conference in the first place? Sounds silly, right? But this was not something I ever asked myself when first going to conferences and, unsurprisingly, I left with no problems solved!
In fact, quite the opposite happened! Going to a conference without a clear purpose means you’ll walk away with new problems! What!? It’s true! When I left most conferences, I always had a bunch of new things I felt like I should be doing. Each presenter made me feel increasingly worse about myself because they all sounded so great!
Attending a conference is like going shopping. If you go with a purpose, you’ll walk out with what you needed. If you just sorta “go shopping”, you end up with random stuff that looked interesting in the moment but will just end up on a shelf forever.
So, consider what problem you want to solve. You might even realize that the best way to solve your problem is to skip some sessions, sit in a hallway, and plan your upcoming unit!
Speakers, Not Topics
A nearly universal truth: pick speakers, not topics. After sitting through hundreds and hundreds of disappointing sessions, I’d rather see a great speaker talk about 3rd Century Chinese Pottery than a poor or unprepared speaker address a highly relevant topic.
Of course, the problem is, if you’re new, you have no idea who is worth seeing! Few conference planners seem to address this issue. They don’t separate the wheat from the chaff for you, so you’ll need to do it yourself.
Consider asking folks who have been to the conference before, “Hey, who are the unmissable presenters at this event?” Believe me, people know who the good presenters are! They’ll be lining up early to try to get a spot in that session.
As a first-year teacher, my boss actually planned my first conference schedule for me. This was brilliant! I would have ended up in the weeds had I made my own choices.
You Do You!
Take breaks and skip sessions. Many conferences are way too packed. You spend the day rushing around, trying to find rooms, trying to get a seat, trying to pick the right session. It’s absolutely exhausting. The best events have lots of free time built in to interact with colleagues, chat with presenters, and maintain a balance of input and processing time. If the event you’re attending is too packed, please skip some sessions, relax, and take a bit of time to think.
Related: Processing Is Better Than Input. You could go to 1,000 wonderful sessions, but if you never take the time to process those ideas you’re hearing, you’ll never ever actually use them in your classroom! Because, honestly, once your next week starts, you will never revisit your conference notes again.
So, after leaving a great presentation, I’d skip the next session, take a seat somewhere, and figure out what I wanted to do with the ideas I had just heard. Taking an hour to process one idea is a better use of your time than getting more ideas that you’ll never process.
Leave any session that is not going how you thought it would! Yes, you will feel a moment of discomfort as you walk out and push the door open. But this conference was expensive, and your opportunities are limited. Do not sit through a bad talk!
As a presenter, I’d start by saying, “Feel free to leave if this isn’t the session for you!” I’ve even had people tell me later, “Once I saw you leave that session, I left too. It was so bad!” So you might even inspire other people to seek out better sessions!
Titles and Descriptions Lie (Sometimes) This is a dirty little secret of conferences: written descriptions are due months before speakers even start planning their talks. As a result, many sessions aren’t about what they say they’ll be about because the speaker changed their mind once they started, you know, actually planning the talk.
See speakers who give the same talk multiple times. It is really hard to give a great presentation the first time through. Even as a professional, the debut of any new talk was always rough. And, frankly, most presenters don’t even practice their talk one time. Sitting through a first-time talk is like attending the first rehearsal of a play where the actors are still holding their scrips. Try to find speakers who are giving a talk for, like, the 10th time.
The more local the conference, the better. Smaller, more local events will more clearly target your particular needs. You’ll be less overwhelmed by the size of the venue, the parking will be easier, the whole thing will be cheaper, and you will have a simpler menu of sessions to pick from. Bigger events are rarely better.
Related: Should you go to NAGC’s conference? If you’re a teacher, I think you’d be better off attending an event designed for teachers.
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