7 steps to maximize learning at education conferences in 2018

By Russell Schwartz

Career defining moments. Life defining moments. We are all anxious to experience these, however, we never know where or when they are going to happen.

In the world of education, career defining moments can be actually scheduled! Yes, it is difficult to believe, but they can be—they are called educational conferences, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some have very specific content focuses, some center on technology in education, others on school culture. These conferences offer opportunities that are difficult to duplicate during the school year. They bring together connections, valuable learning experiences, and leave you with the power to directly impact your school or classroom.

It took me 16 years to finally experience the power of a conference filled with fellow educators—and not just people who share a profession, but educators who share a passion! Connecting with and growing my professional network beyond my school and district has been transformative.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend the last two ISTE conferences. The size of the conference had me in awe, sending me on a journey to absorb as many ideas as I could. As I sorted through my massive amounts of notes, resources and new connections, I finally was able to organize my learning into a package I could focus on back at my school.

As I prepare to attend FETC in January, I have decided to change my approach to maximize my time. Attending a conference of this magnitude requires a backward planning design—start with the end in mind. I hope this game plan can also help you create the most beneficial, impactful experience at any conference!

Step 1: Determine the goal

What are the needs of your organization, school or classroom that you would like to address? Why do you want to attend this conference? What questions can it help answer? What can the conference offer that you are able to transfer back to your daily work? Justification for spending time, money and resources at a conference can only be made if there is an intended purpose.

The answers to these questions vary depending on each school and community of educators. In my case, I am fortunate to work with a group of very dedicated educators who constantly look for new tools, want to connect outside of their classrooms and incorporate new strategies to meet students’ needs. With all the sharing of ideas and strategies, I am confident that FETC will meet the goals of my school and teachers.

Step 2: Determine the players

Who are the players that will best maintain the focus at the conference? Who will best digest the learning, collaborate with other attendees, and most effectively share with the school or organization once they return? Why do you want to bring a team?

At my school, I opened the option to go to FETC to my entire staff knowing that I could only fund five instructors. For me, it was important that the teachers selected to attend the conference actually wanted to be there. I was excited that eight teachers were very eager to go. Knowing who wanted to attend, I divided the group into grade levels and selected my five teachers at random.

Step 3: Determine the game plan

After selecting the conference to attend and who will be part of the team, it’s time to establish communication within your team and with the conference. Registering as a group and/or registering early will most likely save you money. Once the conference is booked, get with your team to discuss logistics. Where are you going to stay? Being close to the conference is the best option but also might be more pricey. Are you able to share rooms? How are you going to travel? Close enough for a carpool? Flight? When will you leave and return? It is very important to read through the conference website and other documents to make certain you do not miss anything.

Step 4: Get excited

Talk it up amongst your team! Discuss with your team about the presenters, the topics, the opening keynote, etc. Figure out a time to meet as a group weekly leading up to the conference. Make certain that no detail is overlooked. Have you considered airport transfers? Is your hotel on the shuttle route? What restaurants are close to your hotel or easily accessible? Do you need to purchase tickets for any outside of the conference activities?

We are meeting each Monday during the month of the conference to touch base, prepare and build excitement for FETC. We are constantly reviewing our plans and talking about the opportunities that exist at the conference.

Step 5: Make final preparations

In order to maximize the potential of every connection, each member of your conference team should have a Twitter account. One reason is that many presenters at conferences incorporate their Twitter handles into sessions. Hashtags will also be used during sessions and for the overall conference experience—these hashtags and Twitter accounts are great ways to be engaged during the event, and beyond. You can also connect with other educators attending the conference, and can exchange Twitter handles in the same manner people used to exchange phone numbers. It is a great way to maintain the connections beyond the conference and to help build your professional learning network (PLN).

Step 6: Implement the game plan

It’s time to attend the conference! Put your plan into action and let your excitement keep the momentum going during the course of the conference. Be sure to seek moments to make connections with other educators. Attend the sessions that you have planned, but also remain flexible if other opportunities arise.

Step 7: Debrief and reflect

How will you measure the success of the conference? How will your learning transfer back to your school or district? How will you and/or your team bring back this learning to other educators?

The first step in that process is to make time while at the conference to share learning and ideas. These conversations can occur during meals, at evening events, in between sessions—anywhere! However, it is vital to discuss before your return trip home. Take notes as you discuss, as it can be difficult to keep track of the many ideas and resources shared. You can later prioritize the learning, categorize and eliminate if necessary. These ideas will eventually form your action plan that you can take back to your location to be shared and implemented.

I am confident if you select the right conference with the right team you will experience the same enlightenment and excitement that I have at previous conferences. Attending FETC in January will be my best conference yet because I feel more prepared than ever to learn, connect, grow and plan!

Russell Schwartz is the principal at Nova Blanche Forman Elementary in Davie, Florida. You can connect with him on Twitter and ask any of your conference questions @Russ_Schwartz.