Making the Most of Conferences
National conferences continue to be part of the educational landscape. In times when schools had money in the budget, attendance was an annual event. Often, teams traveled across the country to attend conferences, sometimes annually. These formally organized educational conferences either gather around a subject...like the National Science Teachers' Association Conferences or around broader themes of teaching and learning like the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) or Learning Forward or leadership like the School Superintendent Association (AASA).
Now, more than ever, with limited resources, those fortunate enough to still be attending these conferences must benefit from the experience and make a difference back home. In other words, you must get your money's worth. How that happens is only partially the responsibility of the conference sponsors. Getting your money's worth out of a conference, especially a national conference where the costs are high, is also the responsibility of the school leaders who attend.
Conferences are places where new ideas can be explored and successful practices are shared. Eye opening, mind opening, and sometimes heart opening can take place when hearing the stories or practices of others. Keynote speakers can be inspirational and make us want to do something new or help us see things in a new way. Sometimes, a conference can help wash away stale thinking and give new energy to those in attendance.
Conference attendance may be aligned with some facet of the school's and district's strategic plan. In the best of circumstances, teams get to attend the conference together and have opportunities to share thinking, learn and have fun together, and plan next steps upon returning home. In more limited circumstances, when one person is a lone representative from the school or district and is expected to report what was learned at the conference, the impact is more limited. Effective change cannot be expected if the returnees are only expected to present to the faculty or the board. It is really difficult to build momentum and leverage change that way.
So how does one person attending the national conference make a difference back home? Well, the beginning is the commitment of the district for the conference. What is the expectation? Is it a reprieve or reward for the leader? Or is it professional networking time? If it is those things then, there is no need to read on. But, if there is a hope for a nugget of something new...a way to address an emerging issue or problem, or a seed of new thinking or a grant opportunity or a new book ... then the return strategy matters. Have any of you heard the coffee pot conversation that goes like this ..."He/she is back from the conference. I wonder what we'll be doing next." In the rare times when change can really happen, intentions must be strong and clear. Leaders will own the effort. They will
- invest in the ideas and the people who are intrigued by them enough to do further investigation,
- create the opportunities for the faculty to engage those new ideas,
- insure the community of stakeholders knows, understands, and can support the change that is being discussed,
- plan, pilot and implement the change, and
- monitor and guide with feedback as a change is implemented over time.
There are few who do not believe schools need to change. But, there must be a cohesiveness to creating the direction and momentum that moves students, schools and districts forward. Random programs and initiatives will discredit any good work buried with in them.
We know so much about how people learn and the skills needed in the 21st century economy. The direction each school and district remains a local decision. Within the limits of policy and regulations, boards of education do have choices. There is room within the limits of policies to respond creatively and compliantly. The goal, for example, to create 21st century schools that graduate 21st century prepared students can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The definitions designed in and for each local district can, and maybe should, be different.
In so many places effective change has yet to take place and schools still resemble their last century selves. Ideas from outside the district boundaries will seep in even if they are not invited and they are essential. Experiences from outside the walls of the school and district can inform and refresh. The opportunities to learn at national conferences can become catalytic, launching a new environment. More can happen if the leader seizes the experience and stimulates new thinking. The reward is a fine investment of district funds and an exciting beginning follows.
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