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5 Tips to Get the Most Out of Any Conference

Hey folks! John here. With what appears to be the darkest days of COVID-19 behind us, everyday life is slowly starting to look a lot more like the pre-pandemic normal — both in our classrooms and in the world around us. And after a few years of hiccups, misfires, false starts, and cancellations — the gradual return to life as it was means that means that education conferences are once again returning in full swing. 

If you’ve never been to an education conference, it is definitely a PD avenue worth exploring. As a working classroom teacher, it can be so easy to get caught up in the daily routine of lesson planning and grading papers. But each time I’ve attended an education conference, I am given the chance to “zoom out” and see just how big the scope of our profession (and the work that we do!) really is — which I’ve consistently found to be a great way to recharge and refocus on my passion for teaching. The keynotes, presentations and workshops offered can plant a seed for all sorts of new teaching strategies and give you a fresh perspective on your practice. And when you’re not busy taking copious notes and learning new skills, these off-site mega events are a really great way to get to know your fellow educators in meaningful conversations on a level far greater than passing water cooler conversation — which can provide a valuable opportunity for professional development and networking.

As a teacher, instructional coach and sucker for quality PD, I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of more than my fair share of education conferences in the past decade (as a frame of reference: planet earth is approximately 24,901 miles around. When I wrote EDrenaline Rush in 2019, I had logged some 36,000 miles of air travel bouncing to and from conferences. Four years and a few dozen more conferences later, and I’ve easily doubled that figure). And as a pretty regular fixture on the conference circuit, both as an attendee and presenter, I like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way. With the in-person return of such noteworthy industry heavy hitters like FETC (January), SXSW (March), UDL (March) ASCD (April), NCEA (May) and ISTE (June) — the live event calendar is quickly filling up in the months ahead. So here are my top five tips for getting the most bang for your buck at a conference near you.

(Obligatory disclaimer: what follows are a series of what I hope will be well-informed opinions, not hard and fast rules. If you’ve got a strategy that works for you that differs from the one I’ve spelled out below, by all means have at it!)

Tip #1: You Can Often Attend For FREE!

Not so fun fact: the cost of registering for an out-of-town (or out-of-state) conference can add up FAST. Between the cost of a conference registration ($300-$500 easy), the cost of a hotel ($150-$350 per night), and the cost of travel to get to the location of the event (let’s split the difference and call it $400 for a round trip flight) — you’re easily looking at anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 per conference, per attendee. And not surprisingly, recent trends have shown that schools are much more willing to invest these funds into online training solutions than to dedicate them to hit-or-miss in-person events. When budgets are tight, that’s bad news.

The good news?

Schools have access to federal grant money allocated annually under the Title II-A funding. Specifically:

Title II, Part A (Title II-A) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) is the key statute through which the federal government provides funds to states and districts to improve the quality and effectiveness of their teachers, principals, and other school leaders.

In other words? If you find a conference that might be up your alley, it certainly doesn’t hurt to approach your administrators and ask them for the opportunity to attend the event with the help of Title II-A funding. Many, MANY schools find themselves in a “use it or lose it” mindset throughout the year when it comes to spending money that’s already been budgeted for teacher PD — and it certainly doesn’t hurt to put yourself on your admin team’s radar if you’re serious about exploring off-site PD. As you make your request, let them know how hungry and serious you are about growing and improving in your craft — and offer to even lead an in-school mastermind group or PD where you’ll be happy to share the key takeaways from what you learn at the conference. That way, the conference’s impact can resonate far beyond the four walls of any one classroom, and the administration’s investment can pay tremendous dividends for your entire school community.

As the old saying goes: a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.

Tip #2: The More The Merrier

Once your school is able to find the funding, heading to an off-site conference with a handful of colleagues can be some of THE. BEST. professional development that you’ll ever experience. Simply allowing yourselves to “go to work” as a team outside of the campus of your school can be a tremendously rejuvenating experience for all parties involved. Allowing yourselves to model lifelong learning and embrace the opportunity to discover (and discuss and digest) all sorts of new information as a team can really be a powerful starting point when forging stronger working relationships and deeper trust as a team. It’s wild how much deeper the overall quality of peer-to-peer conversations can be when you’re not trying to cram all you have to say into the passing time in the hallways or the time it takes for a microwaved lunch to reach its cooking temperature.

Pro tip: rather than flying to an out-of-state conference that’ll gobble up a huge chunk of the conference budget in airline and hotel fees, consider finding a local or state conference that’s within driving distance and carpooling with your colleagues. After all — which of these is more likely to yield longterm dividends?

A. Flying solo for $4 grand to Los Angeles, only to return home to your school to a sea of angry looks from coworkers who notice your tan and/or had to cover your classes while you were out and/or don’t really want to hear about your little trip since they didn’t get to join the fun, or…

B. Picking a conference within an hour or so’s drive from your school, and taking a few days to connect with some folks who you’ve really been dying to know anyway beyond a simple “hi! How are you?,” and returning to school with a bunch of new friends and a bunch of new ideas.

Tip #3: Divide and Conquer

While buddying up with a colleague or two can be a fantastic way to create a social network around your off-site conference experience, if you really want to get the most bang for your buck, I’ve found the absolute best way to enjoy a conference is for teammates to treat the entire event like something of an accordion.

Start together. Then pull apart. Then get back together.

Rinse and repeat, again and again and again.

In a typical conference, this might look something like everyone on your team meeting in the hotel lobby first thing in the morning, then making their way through check-in and finding a group of seats together at the opening keynote. Once the main stage presentation is done, give yourself and your colleagues the permission to spread out for a bit — taking in as many smaller breakout sessions as you can throughout the day and then agreeing to meet to compare notes and debrief your experiences over a meal (or a beverage!) at the end of the day. SO much easier than trying to have everyone agree on which session offerings sound the most interesting to all members of the group. And this can be a great starting point for providing your team with a place to try to make sense of the big picture when all is said and done, working together to reassemble all of those disparate bits of information with the goal of identifying any common threads once all the breakout sessions and keynotes have drawn to a close.

Tip #4: Watch Out for Timeshare Presentations

With all love and kindness to folks out there in the education and consulting space who are trying to earn an honest living, there is simply nothing worse than finding yourself trapped inside of a jam-packed conference session only to discover that you’ve accidentally been suckered into sitting through what is really no more than an extended product demo, commercial, or sales pitch.

It is literally the worst.

As a hard working classroom teacher, I absolutely hate it when folks waste my time OR my money — because I have a very limited supply of both. And as professional session presenters, both Michael and I try to remain particularly cognizant of the fact that the purpose of any keynote or breakout session shouldn’t be to sell books, speaking gigs, or site subscriptions — rather, it is to provide attendees with a practical blend of relevant research and actionable strategies that they can start using RIGHT. AWAY. Conference attendees (or their schools) have already paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for the “privilege” of putting those individuals into the conference in the first place. Attendees simply deserve to be treated as the adults and professionals that they are — and not as the potential customers that they might become.

Rule of thumb for spotting “snakey” presentations ahead of time: check the conference app or program. Most all of them will list speaker bios alongside the session descriptions. If you see a session presenter that’s being run by a person from XYZ corporation rather than anyschool USA, proceed with extreme caution. I’ve found that more often than not, far too many full-time edtech pros will usually run a session that’s really great at telling you all about what’s wrong in education… followed quickly by their reveal of a magic bullet that’s guaranteed to fix the problem which just so happens to be proprietary and hidden behind a massive paywall.

Look, I completely understand it that it is impossible for ANY presenter to try to squeeze a life’s work into a 60 minute workshop. But read the room! If you ever see me present live and even once feel like you’re being upsold, you have my full permission to:

A) Walk out in the middle of the session, and/or…
B) Punch me in the head.

Seriously. Your time is too valuable to have it wasted.

Tip #5: Don't Try to Drink From a Firehose

Without fail at every conference I attend, there is always at least one (and sadly, often a lot more than one) session in the program that promises to be something along the lines of “an action packed crash course” full of some absurdly large number of shiny new things for educators to fall in love with during the course of a laughably small amount of time. They typically have session titles like:

  • 50 Must See Tech Tools
  • 30 New Apps That Will Unleash Your Students’ Creativity
  • The Hipster’s Guide to Google: 15 Things You Never Knew That Google Could Do

Call me old fashioned or strange, but even my ADHD brain can’t handle the sheer time it takes to process the simultaneous big and small picture detail it would take to make sense of “a new app every minute!” (Incidentally, that’s also why we capped this blog post at 5 Tips instead of 10.) Breakout sessions at your average conference typically run anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes in length. Do you remember how long it took you to get a feel for the first time you played Kahoot? We’re talking 5 to 10 minutes, minimum. And far too often, for the sake of living up to the session title’s lofty hype, these “jam-packed” sessions find themselves speed-racing through a battery of buzzwords at breakneck speed to the point where attendees can’t help but feel like they’re being asked to take a drink from a firehose. 

Expert advice: these sessions can and do often contain a ton of valuable information, but you might just find yourself overwhelmed from the sheer pace at which it is all delivered your way. If the conference has an app where presenters can upload their slide decks and resources, skip these sessions and download the documents later when you’ll have time to move through each one at a much more reasonable pace. That way you get to sit in on another session AND you still get to take home a working list of all of those newfangled apps from the presenter who likely wouldn’t have had the time to do any of them justice in the first place. Win/win!

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