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Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Attend Professional Conferences?

By Amy Ellerman and Mary Jo Ziegman

How do we become the educators we are? As teachers, we take pride in our individual identities, that unique mix of art and science that characterizes our professional style. We develop deeply held values and beliefs that guide our decision making. We walk the talk with buzzwords like “growth mindset,” seeking out experiences that will continue to feed our learning forward. We read, we take classes, we collaborate with other professionals in our buildings. Many of us also build virtual PLNs (personal learning networks) on social networking platforms to widen our circles of collaboration. These partnerships lead to shared missions and visions for the work we do in our schools and districts.

Over time, our professional (and collective) personas grow and evolve; there are many influences competing to be the philosophical wind and water shaping the geography on which our practice is built. How do we ensure that we position ourselves to engage in the ongoing professional dialogue? How do we make sure that we have access to the voices in education that will challenge us to keep growing?

One way to keep ourselves in the most current learning loop is to attend a professional conference.

A conference is an opportunity for new and different ideas to stand together in the same space with the practitioners who will determine which methods rise and fall. It is the classroom teacher who translates new strategies into daily practice. It is the classroom teacher who makes decisions about which new strategies and ideas get test driven with students and which live forever frozen on the pages of books and journals. Proximity to those new ideas matters. It’s the difference between reading a primary source and a textbook; as an educator, do you want to be in the room, asking questions, privy to the professional dialogue, or do you want to learn new practices through someone else’s filter? Ken Lindblom, Editor of English Journal puts it this way: “We have a decision to make: Are teachers decision makers who use their professional judgment to affect student learning? Or are teachers implementers of the professional judgment of others, who follow the directions that others have determined will lead to student success?” (2013).

As we teach our students, we must be active consumers of content, able to critically analyze the quality of theories and practices flooding the marketplace so that we can make the best possible instructional decisions. Our content knowledge must be deep, and we must continuously work to deepen it. The current climate demands that we be informed advocates for our students and for the future direction of our profession. “Lifelong learner” is not just a phrase we throw around on the resume. To thrive as an educator it is imperative that we continue to refine our practice through interaction with other professionals with the same drive to learn.

At a conference, we can connect with those like-minded professionals, the educators who share our passion for teaching and learning. It is affirming and inspiring to gather with others who seek to understand the intricacies of instruction. The energy is palpable—it’s a learning vacation (not a vacation from learning, but the luxury of a vacation dedicated to learning).

A conference is designed around the understanding that participants want to be able to choose what they learn. Unlike a class or a workshop, if a session is not meeting your needs, you can walk next door or down the hall to find a better fit. Daniel Pink has written extensively on the connection between autonomy and motivation (2009). In a professional learning environment that tends to include few(er) choices at the building level, it is empowering to “choose your own adventure” at a conference, selecting the sessions most applicable to the needs of your own classroom, role, or building. Like our students, we are most engaged when we have a voice in selecting the content most relevant to our own needs and professional learning goals. Pink’s big three—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—the factors that contribute most to intrinsic motivation and long-term satisfaction with work and the pursuit of goals, germinate and are nurtured in the kind of learning environment that a conference creates.

Attending a series of sessions from a variety of speakers often reveals a common theme bubbling up in the field. We can see the big ideas that unite us as educators, rather than the specificities of our classrooms and buildings that tend to separate us. For example, a thread that ran through sessions at the 2015 CCIRA Conference was inquiry. Whether it was Jeff Wilhelm making Shakespeare relevant to high school students or Nell Duke sharing her research on Project Based Learning in the primary grades, speaker after speaker advocated for shifting more ownership to students through an inquiry stance. A professional at that conference could not help but reflect on the level of student engagement across content and grade level in his or her own classroom or building. In this way, a conference is an opportunity to step back and see the big picture, to notice the important trends connecting the more specialized teaching lives we pursue.

Because educators don’t all need the same learning, and because we don’t always agree, a conference is guaranteed to surface differences as well as similarities. This is both important and necessary to the health of our profession. When in our daily lives do we create opportunities to engage with the ideas of others—in particular, others who may hold beliefs that are different from our own? A conference is an opportunity to push on our thinking. Just as a little cognitive dissonance is good for our students, it is equally valuable to attend a session at a conference that blows your hair back a bit. Disequilibrium leads to deep reflection, asking questions, and an authentic need to process with others. At a conference, we are surrounded by educators from a wide variety of experiences who may be having a similar experience. It is a safe place to be intellectually uncomfortable.

The most significant measure of the value of a conference is what happens after the conference. It’s not about putting everything into practice—that’s not possible—but about choosing the next steps that will feed your own learning forward. What has inspired you to continue learning? For example, are you leaving with a professional book from a favorite speaker, so that you can go deeper into what he or she presented? Did you connect with another educator with similar interests, so that you have a compatriot with whom you can reflect as you try out a new idea? Or perhaps you met someone who challenged you to think more deeply about a current practice.

Bigger picture, what is the impact on the culture of a school if it is regularly infused with the new thinking of teachers attending conferences? There is a collective sense of ownership for building capacity in schools where teachers are expected to pursue new learning and bring it back to share with teams. It becomes “something we do,” the norm, growth mindset in action. Challenging the status quo with learning that provokes discussion and a need for action research, the itch to try it out, to see if it really does improve student achievement. This builds leadership in schools, a sense of responsibility among teachers that the best way to improve teaching and learning is to be a critical consumer of what makes best practice. According to Carol Dweck, whose research has brought the concept of growth mindset to the forefront of education, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them” (cited by Pink, 2009, p. 123). School cultures that invest energy and effort into professional learning, who expect such effort from each other, flourish from the energy generated by motivated professionals.

How do we become the educators we are? We build that identity. The question is, are we willing to build-by-number, Ikea style, or do we value the process enough to craft our own identities? It does take more effort to research which materials are the best quality and which tools offer the most precision, but the craftsmanship speaks for itself when there is pride and joy in the process. The professional conference challenges us as practitioners to engage in the collaborative thinking work that sharpens our chisel and calibrates our lathe. The fellowship we gain as leaders of our own learning—a community of learners seeking out ideas that push our thinking—this is what makes education such a dynamic and inspiring profession.

Conferences open doors. Doors to new ways of thinking. Doors to books to be read. Doors to professional networks. Attending a conference is an investment in your craft. It’s a way to feed the passion that motivated you to pursue teaching in the first place. A conference is a place to physically rub shoulders and connect with other professionals who want to be engaged and inspired. Let’s invest in the crafting of our teacher-selves by being active participants in this year’s CCIRA Conference on Literacy: A World of Wonder.