No one moves. A room full of people have traveled very far to this conference of superintendents, and no one wants to ask the man speaking before them a question.
Jonathan Voss, a senior analyst at Washington-based Lake Research Partners, stands waiting at the podium. He breaks the awkward silence with a joke before an attendee at this July legislative-advocacy conference, convened by AASA, the School Superintendents Association in Washington, finally asks a question.
Some people are probably afraid to ask a question because they weren’t paying attention; at least a few attendees have spent the morning on their phones, checking Twitter and Instagram.
“Technology has ruined us,” said Reece Blincoe, superintendent of the Brownwood school district, in Texas. “Because we’re sitting here answering emails, we’re doing tweets, we’re doing all these things, and we’re doing all the things we tell our kids not to do in a classroom.”
Most of the audience does seem engaged, yet it’s early in the morning on the conference’s third day, so wandering attention can be expected. It goes with the territory, but with so many conferences for educators to choose from, finding new ways to engage potential attendees—and keep those who do show up coming back—remains a priority for organizers.
According to a January 2014 study by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, just under 61 million people attended a professional convention or conference in the United States in 2012, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.S. economy. Thanks to its vast array of positions and subjects, the education sector makes a modest contribution to those numbers.
That same diversity means districts have to figure out which conferences provide the best result for the time and money, and how those attending a conference can make the most of the opportunity.
Conferences will also inevitably be tests of patience and concentration. Most of the big education conferences last three or four days, starting early in the morning and ending in the evening—longer than the average school day, but not necessarily any less hectic.
“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Mr. Blincoe said.
Popular or useful sessions inevitably overlap, as well, leaving conference attendees to pick and choose, hoping to land a winner.
Research into conference organizing suggests the need for a new emphasis on rethinking the formatting of some of those sessions, too, especially for younger crowds.
According to a 2012 report by the Professional Convention Management Association, “It is imperative to discontinue programs of straight lecture or basic PowerPoint presentations to satisfy an emerging generation of attendees.”
PowerPoints still reign supreme at many conferences, though. And when the presentations don’t engage the audience, the smartphones come out.
“[Presentations] have to be done correctly. They can’t be shoved down your throat with all kinds of information,” said Tim Young, the principal of Florence Brasser Elementary School in Rochester, N.Y., and an attendee at the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ annual conference in Nashville in July. “I went to one that was slide after slide, after slide, after slide ... It was probably a two-day workshop, and they were just sharing as much as possible.”
In an attempt to make PowerPoint easier to digest, some conferences are embracing Ignite talks, lightning-round sessions that give a variety of speakers just five minutes to go through up to 20 slides.
Wary of being slide-dependent, many conference organizers are ever watchful for new opportunities to make their events stand out.
Thousands flock to ASCD’s annual conference, but in 2005 the group debuted its Emerging Leaders initiative, a two-year program for early-career educators designed to improve young leadership in education and in ASCD itself. The Emerging Leaders program convenes concurrently with the larger annual conference.
“There’s a tremendous amount of talent that’s out there, so creating a group that’s structured like this really provides a leadership chain,” said Kevin Scott, strategic adviser for constituent services at ASCD. “The idea is that you create this group and tie them to the overall mission and vision of the organization, and the leadership of the organization.”
ASCD also leverages the new trend of “unconferences,” in which conference organizers set aside space in a convention hall where attendees who aren’t interested in any particular sessions can meet and discuss whatever they like—akin to an open forum. If attendees don’t like what one group is talking about, they can go and create their own group discussion.
“One of the things we have found is that people want a space to debrief or reflect,” Mr. Scott said. “So many times at conferences, you’re just so full. You have so much information and there’s not always that time to stop and pause.” He added that while attendees might find time to do that at a restaurant or bar in the evening, conferences can help make that reflection intentional.
Finding the Good Stuff
As distracting as Twitter can be, it also offers an informational boon for attendees; all major conferences have Twitter hashtags now, so that attendees can monitor what’s happening in other sessions, and bail out of their own if they see something better.
Big keynote speakers can be a draw, but good conferences don’t shy away from the nitty-gritty of classroom instruction and solutions.
Lisa Marion-Howard, the principal at Engleburg Elementary School in Milwaukee, said she always makes sure to register early and scope out good sessions before attending the NAESP conference every summer.
“The sessions that were helpful for me were all of those content-based sessions,” she said. “Those that got at core curriculum, such as reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.”
Many of those interviewed for this article emphasized the desire to hear from teachers and administrators who are actually, well, teaching and administering—people who know what’s worth talking about because they’re doing it themselves.
“I want to take something back that I can share with my entire staff,” said Wanda Shelton, the superintendent of Lincoln County schools, in Tennessee. “I have about 305 certified employees. I want something that’s going to help me help teachers help kids.”
Yes, You Have to Network
Despite the best intentions of conference organizers, attendees must still do the heavy lifting.
Savvy conference-goers emphasize the importance of actively participating in sessions.
“I wasn’t bashful today stepping to the mic a couple times,” Mr. Blincoe said. “Get engaged. Ask the questions. Because I promise you, if you’re asking it, 20 other people in the room are thinking it and they’re just scared to get up.”
Not that sessions need to be the main draw, anyway. Nicole Kirby, the director of communications for Park Hill school district in Kansas City, Mo., said she keeps coming back to the summer conference for the National School Public Relations Association, held in July in Baltimore, because of the people.
“When I first started coming to these conferences, I was soaking up the information I got in the sessions like a sponge, because I realized that I had a lot to learn,” Ms. Kirby said. “As I started to feel like I was [learning] my way around the profession, I realized that what I was getting out of it was the opportunity to make professional connections that I could draw on throughout the year.”
She said that holing up in your hotel room is a rookie mistake.
“Stop people, introduce yourself, go to the social events and receptions and things, and make an effort to get to know people,” Ms. Kirby said. “It’s those connections you make that really sustain you throughout your career.” Ms. Kirby added that she calls on those connections whenever she’s facing some unexpected challenge, because more often than not, one of those contacts has been in her shoes before.
Making those connections also creates an opportunity to benchmark.
“I want to gauge what I’m doing versus what everyone else is doing,” said Willie Braggs, an NSPRA attendee and a communications specialist for the Jenks public schools in Oklahoma. “Am I on the right track in my own thinking?”
All the listening and note-taking and tweeting and networking can take a toll, though.
At the Teaching & Learning Conference hosted in March by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, teachers had to navigate the mammoth halls of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital, and the schedule had left out lunch. At a writing session late one afternoon, teachers were asked to do some impromptu writing. One teacher told the speaker that her friend had left without doing the assignment.
“We’re tired. We weren’t expecting to have to do anything,” she said.
Which might be why the longest lines at conferences aren’t for a session—they’re for Starbucks.
Denisa R. Superville contributed reporting to this article.