Create some accountability. To make sure you are focused on finding the best strategies possible, commit before the conference to presenting your findings to your staff, grade level team, or another group that could benefit. Knowing that people are expecting to learn something from you or that your boss now expects a specific return on the investment can help you maximize your time there.
Narrow your focus. Especially if you’re going to a big conference, it’s easy to think breadth over depth and try to go to sessions on a variety of topics. If you choose a focus area, though, you will be better able to connect and internalize all of your new learning. And if you’re going to all problem-solving sessions, for example, then your brain is focused on problem-solving the whole time, allowing you to think more deeply about the topic and compare and contrast all the different approaches you’ll learn.
Don’t divide and conquer. It is common at conferences for colleagues to split up in order to attend as many sessions as possible, promising to come back together and share everyone’s learning with the whole group. Unfortunately, we rarely commit to incorporating strategies from someone’s 2-minute summary of it over dinner. In order to really get the most out of the conference, you need to be a little selfish and go to the session you want to go to even if your colleagues have a different plan.
Skip some sessions. I am uncomfortable even writing that because it seems like getting the most out of a conference typically means going to as many sessions as possible, but that isn’t always the case. Say you go to an amazing session and are bursting with ideas for how to implement them into your classroom. Should you go to the next session that you’re only lukewarm about? Or should you sit down and start planning lessons or workshops based on the new ideas? I’d say the latter. If you can already start implementing ideas while you’re still at the conference, you’re definitely making great use of your time and the school’s money.
Team up. If you’re attending with a colleague, especially one you trust and work well with, team up and go to some of the sessions together. This way you all are able to talk through ideas together and deepen your understanding of the ideas. Having a partner who is also excited about the ideas means you have a built-in accountability partner when you return to campus, someone to plan the implementation with, and also someone to back you up if you want to try and get more people on board with the ideas you’re bringing back.
Abandon ship when necessary. Now, all of the above strategies only work if the sessions are good. And in large conferences, that’s not always a guarantee – sometimes they’re selling a product, sometimes the summary that brought you there was misleading, and sometimes it’s just plain bad. Your school spent good money to get you there, so don’t sit through a bad session just to be polite. Sit towards the back and don’t be afraid to get up and find a new session as soon as you realize it’s not for you. It’s awkward at first, but so worth it if it means finding a session that’s actually going to be worthwhile.
So before you head out for that big conference, take some time to determine your outcomes and plan out your sessions ahead of time. And once you arrive, trust your gut and allow yourself to use your time strategically in order to get the most benefit for your school and students.
Previously published on May 13, 2014