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Stepping Into The Spotlight

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If you have good ideas to share with your colleagues, you'll probably have no trouble finding an audience. There are more than 100 national and regional educationrelated associations and countless state and local groups. Virtually all of them hold at least one conference or convention a year, so there are thousands of opportunities to break into the conference circuit. (For a list of organizations, consult the Encyclo- pedia of Associations at your local public library.)

Most educational meetings offer scores of short sessions (from 20 minutes to one hour in length) as well as longer sessions (about two hours in length). Although university researchers, publishers, and big-name experts give some of the presentations, the bulk of workshop leaders at many conferences are classroom teachers. And these sessions often prove the most useful. "Every teacher I've worked with feels they get the best ideas from colleagues,'' says Sandra Powers, chairperson of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' 1991 convention.

If you think you might want to lead a workshop, start by contacting associations that you belong to; some groups only allow members to give presentations. Most associations publish a "call for papers'' notice in their professional journal or newsletter.

Other teachers in your school system may also be able to offer suggestions. An elementary teacher with a flair for physics might be unaware of an upcoming science conference that a high school science teacher knows all about. Also check with administrators and ask them to post information on upcoming conferences.

After deciding on a conference, you will have to submit a written proposal. Most associations will provide information and proposal forms on request. The form is usually short and straightforward; some require only a one-line description, but others ask for a more extensive program outline.

Committees set up by the association's program chairperson review the proposals and select speakers. Your chance of winning a spot on a program schedule is far better than your chances of being named teacher of the year or receiving a standing ovation from your own 9th graders. Although no hard statistics are available, many conference coordinators say teachers stand a 50-50 chance. Others say they generally choose one out of every five proposals submitted.

Here are a few tips that can improve your chances of being selected:

  • Start by speaking at local or regional events. Quite simply, fewer people apply for local slots. "It's a good way to get your feet wet,'' suggests Barbara Kiefer, elementary chairperson for the National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Apply for a short session. "We have 600 one-hour slots and 50 or 60 two-hour slots in a convention,'' says Judith Baenen, director of member and affiliate services for the National Middle School Association. "You have a better chance of being selected for a onehour session.''
  • Be flexible on the time and date of your presentation. Trying to assign 300 speakers in a fixed program is a coordinator's nightmare; planners appreciate teachers with flexible schedules.
  • Give your proposal a catchy title. Make sure the title is interesting and lets the audience know what to expect.
  • Make your idea sound exciting. You may be asked to describe your workshop idea in an abstract of 150 words or less. "Write it out, then eliminate anything that doesn't sound exciting or interesting,'' offers Froschauer, who has served on proposal evaluation committees.
  • Be specific. Explains Kiefer: "We look for a good description of what will be presented. Some proposals don't give us any idea of what's going to happen in the hour.''
  • Think practical. Many teachers want concrete ideas. "I don't want philosophical, pie-in-the-sky puffs of air,'' says Rosalie Dibert, a special education teacher who, like Froschauer, both gives workshops and evaluates proposals. "I want a good idea that I can try on Monday morning.''
  • Don't oversell yourself. Most associations won't ask to see a vita, a detailed resume, or an impressive stack of published articles; they just want to hear your idea. Many program coordinators say they'll look at resumes and such. But don't overdo it, or you'll look like a rookie. Likewise, previous speaking experience isn't necessary. "The most important question is: Do you have something of value to talk about?'' insists Marvin Druger, program chairperson for the 1992 National Science Teachers Association convention.

It won't take much time or money to submit a proposal. But if your idea is accepted, you may end up spending a fair amount of both before the conference is over. Almost all associations expect teachers who speak at their meetings to do so voluntarily-- and to pay to attend the conference. In addition, the cost of any props or handouts is also the teachers' financial responsibility.

Before digging into your own wallet, however, ask your school system for assistance. Some districts pay teachers' conference fees or allow them to reproduce handouts on school copying machines. It also can't hurt to request reimbursement for transportation, lodging, and other expenses.

When approaching administrators for help, point out that you will be representing the school at the conference. In some cases, superintendents have a greater commitment to professional development than principals. "Some principals don't want their teachers to be out of the building,'' Froschauer notes. "The superintendent may understand the importance of getting the school system's name out in the world.''

Considering the time, money, and effort it takes to lead a workshop, why bother? Some teachers do it because they feel a professional responsibility to share their ideas. Others see it as a way to enhance their careers. Unlike many professions, the career ladder in education has few rungs. Professional advancement usually means leaving the classroom for an administrative desk job, a move many teachers don't want to make.

"Quite frankly, I don't want to leave the classroom,'' says Froschauer. "Sharing my ideas with colleagues is part of what I see as my career ladder. It's a way of extending myself. I'm contributing to my profession.''

Mary Koepke

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