Teaching Opinion

Conferences Calling

By David B. Cohen — November 16, 2015 5 min read
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We’ve entered the part of the school year where education conferences are packed into the calendar, meaning plenty of options for teachers, coaches, adminstrators, trustees and other interested individuals. It seems like the first and last months of the traditional school year are less popular times for major professional conferences, while November through April present plenty of options. (Summer always has a few good opportunities as well). I try to attend a few conferences each year, and always find there are several more I’d like to attend but can’t. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a district that supports teachers attending and presenting at conferences, and I’ve also been able to find ways to attend conferences with support from other organizations I’ve worked with over the years. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area helps as well, since the region attracts many quality professional events of every size.

Some teachers say the sign of a good conference is that you come away with “something you can use on Monday morning” - meaning that if the conference takes place in the common Thursday-to-Sunday window of time, you’ll leave the conference with something relevant to your teaching and practical enough to implement right away. I’m not that teacher. When I attend large professional conferences, I’m not shopping for tech gizmos or books or lesson plans; I come away most satisfied if the conference has expanded my understanding of teaching and learning, has led me to think deeply about practice, inspired me towards changes that are too large to implement on Monday morning. And part of the benefit of the conference experience is stepping away from the daily concerns of school, knowing Monday morning is all set and that this time is set aside to search and explore. Of course, if I have that profound learning and also leave with something that can be used quickly and easily, I certainly don’t mind.

Unfortunately, I missed a conference last week that would have provided plenty of “dream big” inspiration, though it was on the smaller side of professional events: the Teacher-Powered Schools Conference took place last week in Minneapolis. You probably can’t call up some teacher-friends and open or transform your school on Monday morning, but you can find more about the idea at their website. Coincidentally, Minneapolis also hosts the year’s biggest event for those of us who teach English: the NCTE Annual Convention starts later this week. This kind of mega-conference offers more high-profile speakers - famous novelists and leaders in the field, and even an author just published for the first time: Chelsea Clinton. A little closer to home, the California Association of Teachers of English has an annual conference that switches between Southern California and Silicon Valley each year. This year, it’s Orange County’s turn to host the event. This medium-sized conference offers a great balance - large enough to attract some high profile speakers and authors, but it feels a bit more intimate to be among participants from the same state and teaching the same subject.

California teachers in search of conferences not focused on a specific grade or subject can attend the Good Teaching Conferences, two of many conferences presented by the California Teachers Association. There’s one in each in Southern California and in San Jose, and I highly recommend the pre-conference Teacher Innovation Expo being organized by CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT). These full-day session spotlight some outstanding teacher-designed projects funded by IFT grants, and attendees will hopefully be inspired to try their own innovative projects and apply for grants. You can read about last year’s expo here. (Disclosures: I am a long-time participant in IFT’s regional teacher think tanks, and IFT helped fund my travel and writing project in 2014-15).

Back at the national level, the mega-conferences that I’ve found most interesting in recent years are Learning Forward and ASCD. This year’s Learning Forward Conference takes place in Washington, D.C., December 5-9. I had the pleasure of presenting at their conference last year, when I teamed up with two leaders from our district office to talk about the professional learning program design in my district. As someone interested in the broadest issues in education, well beyond my subject and grade level, I enjoyed many of the offerings at the conference, but also learned quite a bit simply by socializing with teachers from other parts of the country. An evening stroll through downtown Nashville ended up with me joining some Texas teachers and administrators for a night of music and, I admit it, karaoke. In between, we actually had substantive conversations about school management and unionization. We didn’t agree on much, but the social atmosphere helped us consider other points of view and learn about schools in other parts of the country. The last time I attended the ASCD Conference was in Chicago, where once again I found value in the event’s main offerings, including a great keynote by Maya Angelou and an education reform lecture by Kevin Kumashiro. And again, I learned quite a bit through the informal interactions - chatting with Pasi Sahlberg, Jason Flom, Dave Burgess, and Robyn Jackson, and participating in a hastily assembled EdCampRogue organized by some bloggers and EdCamp leaders. It was also an ASCD conference experience (almost a decade ago) that really propelled my transition to standards-based grading, which turned out to be a meaningful improvement in my approach to assessment and grades.

However, I expect the only national conference I’ll actually be able to attend this school year will be the third annual Teaching & Learning Conference, organized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). For a number of years, NBPTS held bi-annual conferences, mostly in Washington, D.C., but switched to this new event with a broader focus and higher profile when Ron Thorpe took over leadership of the organization. I attended all of those events from 2007 onwards, and have come away inspired by the teacher leaders and other education leaders I’ve met and learned from each time. Thorpe was at the conference last year despite his illness, and passed away on July 1. The event will continue, and while Thorpe will be missed, the organization should be well-served by the appointment of his successor, Peggy Brookins, an experienced teacher leader, National Board Certified Teacher, and passionate advocate for public education. (Disclosure: I’ve done contract work supporting the NBPTS blog, The Standard).

So, whether you’re looking for something to enhance Monday morning’s lesson plan, or concepts and ideas that will transform educational practices, find your way to a conference in the months ahead, and see if there’s a spark to ignite new learning for you and your students.

Photos: Sarah Brown Wessling presents at the Teaching & Learning Conference, 2014; Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond on stage at the Teaching & Learning Conference, 2015; by David B. Cohen.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.