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Takeaways from #NCTE14 (and why professional conferences are worth it)

By Dave Stuart Jr.
Want to skip straight to the video? Click here.

Want to skip straight to the video? Click here.

Two weekends ago, I went to my first-ever national conference for teachers: the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference (NCTE14), which was held in the DC area.

In this post, I'd like to do three simple things:

  • Explain why conferences are and aren't helpful — and how to make sure the next conference you attend is helpful
  • Share my takeaways from the conference (it's a six-minute video and includes me being, for better or worse, me)
  • Argue that schools ought to rethink their policies about supporting teachers in their desire to attend conferences like this

Also, throughout the post, I'll refer to the conference I attended as #NCTE14. I know many of you Teaching the Core folks aren't on The Twitter (you should be — signing up is simple), so let me just give you the advice Penny Kittle once gave at a workshop in West Michigan — it was this advice, which followed the goading of my work-sister Erica Beaton, that got me to feel comfortable really starting on Twitter. Penny simply said to start with Twitter like this:

  • Make an account
  • Follow folks you admire — authors, professors, athletes, One Direction (I'm not linking to One Direction's Twitter profile)
  • Simply lurk. Log in every now and then and see what the people you “follow” are saying
  • Don't feel bad lurking. Lurk as long as you want
  • Ask one of those folks you admire a question (e.g., “Hey @pennykittle — when should I stop lurking on Twitter?”)
  • See if they respond (they often do)

So that's my sales pitch for Twitter — it is pretty neat to be connected with passionate, smart folks around the country (and the world); it also makes attending large conferences that much more gratifying because you'll meet people you know from El Twitter.

Onto the post.

Why professional conferences for teachers are and aren't helpful

Good, helpful stuff about professional conferences:

  • Attending a conference like #NCTE14 is invigorating and refreshing. It's like rebooting a computer that's been left on since September with 40 tabs open.
  • You get to hear smart people you've heard of share what they're working on right now, not in the book they wrote five years ago. I had a list of folks I wanted to hear, and I hit just about all of them. This is totally a newb move, perhaps, but it's one thing to read a book by folks like Jim Burke, Jeff Willhelm, Deb Appleman, Michael W. Smith, Carol JagoHarvey “The Smoke-inator” Daniels, Donalyn MillerNancy Steineke, Kylene Beers, Bob ProbstSara Ahmed, and Kelly Gallagher, yet it's another thing to see them do their thing on the conference dance floor.
  • You get to hear smart people you've never heard of share what they're working on (this was my favorite part).
  • You realize that 1) you're not the best teacher in the world (*cough* some of us need to be reminded of this *cough*), and 2) you're not the worst teacher in the world (just about all of us need to be reminded of this).

Bad, unhelpful stuff about professional conferences:

  • Conferences are kind of like the Internet in that there is too much information. Without some kind of prioritized, simplified takeaway list (hence my video below), you'll have great intentions of tweaking all kinds of things in your classroom but will actually tweak very few.
  • They are expensive. This is bad because teachers need to develop sustainable lifestyles if they are to flourish in their jobs and avoid permanent burnout — ridding them of scrilla is not a great way to facilitate a sustainable lifestyle. Yet it is possible to attend, year in and year out, as is proven by the stolid examples of my budgeting, generous roommates at the conference, Kevin English and Brian Wyzlic.
    • Just to be explicit about the cost: I roomed with those two guys, flew as cheap as I could, and wasn't absurd in my eating costs, and the trip still would have cost me around $900 (thankfully, my alma mater, The American College of Education, sponsored my registration costs, so my out-of-pocket was around $700).

How to make your professional conference experience awesome:

  • Go with realistic expectations. You're likely to get all the helpful stuff in the list above, but you're not going to find answers to every problem that ails you.
  • Do some networking beforehand to try to find some roommates or some folks to meet up with. You'll meet plenty of people in the sessions and hallways, but us introverts gotta plan ahead to maximize our time and develop some relationships.
  • Seek funding support. It exists. Think your school, your local businesses, or your alma mater(s).
  • Make a concise list of takeaway points you want to keep from the conference.

And that last point beautifully segue's into this:

My takeaways (this is the video part)

This past weekend I (finally) read Steven Pressfield's The War of ArtRead it, Teaching the Core family — it is short and full of “the stuff we need to hear.” To be clear, wherever he says “art,” insert what you love doing: teaching, writing, etc.

Basically, Pressfield reinforced a point the conference drove home for me: for the professional teacher, nothing can replace the power of simply doing the work of teaching.

And likewise, as a guy who wants to both teach and help a few fellow teachers along the way, nothing can replace the power of me simply creating things that I think could be useful, getting them “out the door” and on the Internet, and moving on to the next project.

So while the video below isn't what they might call “the gold standard” in videos for teachers, I know that 1) it helped me clarify my takeaway points from the conference, and 2) I had fun making it in a room all by myself (introvert much?):

Finally: if you're a school leader, consider making sensible room in the budget for conferences

While I don't think it's wise to send every teacher to every conference they request to attend, I do think some support for that makes complete sense from a PD budget perspective.

One woman I spoke to teaches English and art at a small high school in Idaho; her district sends teachers to national conferences on a rotating, every-five-years basis. This is smart. Folks who want to go every year can pay their own way most years, but every five years they get a free trip to develop themselves as professionals.

After all, it is expensive sending folks to conferences, and unless you prepare, attend, and reflect well, there's bound to be a lot of wasted district money in sending every teacher who asks every year.

I get it — budgets are such that administrators can't send every teacher who asks; in that case, it seems right to not send any of them because there would be no fair way for choosing who gets the cash.

But just because not sending anyone is the easiest course doesn't mean it's the right one.

(And just for the record, I did not ask my district to send me — my administrators are very generous and gritty when it comes to supporting teachers' desires for professional growth. I didn't ask because I didn't want to create one more sticky situation for them — administrators are like sticky situation magnets, and we need to respect that.)

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