As I am gearing up for Closing the Gap next week, I spend some time reflecting on past conferences… what went well, what I should do differently, how to gain the most knowledge and benefit from these brief few days of professional development.
If you have never been to a large special education conference and will be attending one this school year, hang on to your hats and be ready for an overwhelming amount of information very very quickly. Also, make sure you continue reading because there are absolutely ways to make more of your conference time.
If you have attended such conferences, think back… what worked for you? Do you remember your first? Do you recognize that glazed look that you see on some of your fellow conference attendees that marks a first-time large-scale conference visit?
I will be forever grateful for advice given to me the first time I attended one of these large-scale national conferences. And that brings me to Tip #1…
#1 Do NOT try to do it all!
It is very very easy when you attend these conferences to pack into your schedule absolutely everything that looks interesting… and there is going to be a lot that does. However, by the end of the first day, your brain is going to be so full. Not to mention the swag bag you will be carrying with handouts, demo products, and notes that you desperately want to look through but are way too tired to do it now. Pace yourself and give yourself the grace to take a session off from time to time to gather your thoughts, write a few notes to yourself about important things, and find something to eat.
#2 Stay hydrated and bring snacks.
While you definitely want to make sure you follow #1 above, there will be times throughout a multi-day conference when you find yourself going into a session you are super excited about… and then realize you have completely missed lunch, and haven’t filled your water bottle since… um… huh… when did you fill it last? Nothing makes it harder to focus on a session of amazing information than your stomach growling and feeling fuzzy from dehydration. Make sure you bring simple snacks and fill your water bottle often. One side note here- try to bring snacks that are not loud. Avoid chip bags that crumple, the bag of nuts that only open by pulling with great force… and then spreading the nuts across the entire table, and items that have a significant smell to them. Even if your neighbors don’t notice the smell of your beef jerky or the sound the chips make while you chew, you will be convinced that they can and will be more focused on chewing quietly and eating quickly than you will the information being presented to you.
#3 The Two Feet Rule.
This was a shock to me when I attended my first national conference. The presenter actually told me… to get up and leave! If I wanted. The Two Feet Rule of conferencing says that if you are not gaining information that pertains to your needs or information that is new or valuable to you… use your two feet and get up and walk out of the session to join a new one. This is incredibly important when you are at a conference that caters to professionals with a wide range of knowledge about each topic being presented and that has many sessions running at the same time. Presenters understand that you may be incredibly interested in their topic, think they are an amazingly charismatic presenter… but the information they are giving is something you have already heard, already use, are not ready for yet, or that your brain is simply too overloaded to process right then. As a presenter, I would much rather you leave my session to move to one that is a better fit, than waste a full session listening to information you are not going to use with your students!
This was a hard one for me when I first started attending conferences. I enjoyed the conference… and I also enjoyed the quiet time back in my hotel room processing the day. What I didn’t realize for almost two years was that some of the best professional development I could get at a conference was making connections with other professionals. The people you will meet at conferences can easily become your tribe. The group that you turn to for answers. The group you turn to for ideas, support, problem solving, and humor that only your fellow professionals will understand. Formally these people can make up your PLN- Professional Learning Network. Often, they simply become more like friends who are as interested in your growth as you are in theirs. So-say “hi”, stay after a session to compliment a presenter, get emails and phone numbers, attend the networking events… be friendly!
#5 This may seem obvious after #4, but for some of us.. especially when at a conference involving technology, it can be hard to do. Unplug.
Look up from your screen. Don’t hide behind a laptop or iPad checking email. Take a few moments, write down notes about the session you were in and then get into the hallways in between sessions. Talk. Smile. Say “hi” to the person in the never-ending line for coffee. Appear approachable. Fake it if you have to. This is the only way you will meet people.
Pick a method for keeping track of conference handouts and materials. Make a folder for the PDFs, Google Slides, and Powerpoints you will get with the name of the conference. Make a bookmark folder, or better yet, use an extension like TabSnooze to save the tabs you have open for later. (Trust me, this extension is a conference lifesaver!) Day 1, you will be convinced that you will still be able to remember where things are and find them again. By the end of Day 2…. you have given up all hope of remembering anything and will be incredibly grateful you have your materials organized in a folder to pour over when you get back to reality.
Take a moment and send a link to a co-worker of something you think they would really enjoy from the conference. Organize your documents in such a way that you can go back to share out what you learned. A conference to gain professional knowledge is huge and something that not everyone gets to attend. The knowledge you gain is made even better with the conversations you start with your coworkers and PLNs.
#8 Don’t be afraid to go off on your own.
If you are attending a conference with coworkers, don’t feel the need to stay with them for every session. You are there to get the best information you can for what you do every day. Don’t waste that time in sessions that are perfect for someone else just because you want to attend together. Plus, there is always the concept of divide-and-conquer. With so many sessions running congruently, what better way to gain more than to split up and promise to share resources later!
#9 Take time at the vendor hall.
Take a deep breath. Maybe do some calming exercises…. and then walk into the vendor hall. Typically there is going to be a magical sound barrier that breaks when you enter the room. Suddenly there is noise all around, lots of colors and moving objects, and people everywhere wanting your attention. Vendors come to these events to show off what they have-whether that is software, books, printers, ideas, or… They want to show you every amazing feature of their product because they are competing with everyone else in that hall for your business. This means it is a great time to learn about products that can help you in your profession, and learn about them from the experts! Take time to talk to vendors, learn about their products, ask questions. That is what they are there for. Most vendors will have handouts that show what they are demonstrating- take one. That may be the only way you remember what you see by the time the conference is over. Don’t feel pressured into making promises or signing up. The vendors know you aren’t the sole decision making person in your district or business. So feel free to politely decline or say that you are interested but need to talk to the right people.
#10 Plan ahead.
Take time before the conference to read through session descriptions. Highlight, circle, star, or design your own personalized calendar- whatever you need to do in order to have a list of sessions each hour you are interested in. Yes, I said a list for each hour. At the best conferences, I will have 4 or more sessions during one period that call to me. The benefit to this is that if I have sat through two sessions on something I am passionate about but I am getting burnt out on that topic, I can look at my list for the third and choose maybe to not attend one that is on that same strand. It also allows me to readily have sessions ready should I need to use the Two Feet Rule from above. Another added benefit is you have sessions ready to go and are not wasting valuable networking time reading through the descriptions trying to pick a session.
#11 Don’t be afraid to eat alone.
When attending a conference by yourself, or perhaps even when you are attending with others, you will eventually come to the point where you need to walk into the prepared lunch room and find a seat on your own. This is another deep breath moment. While it feels a bit like the junior high cafeteria as you search for an empty seat, you are no longer in junior high. Find an empty seat, if others are at the table, ask if it is taken, and if not-sit down! Ask your table-mates where they are from, what they do. Ask about their favorite session so far, have conversation. You may find yourself learning tips and tricks while you eat!
And while I won’t add it as a final tip, because it seems sort of an obvious note-
As professionals, the days we get to devote 100% to learning our craft are limited. Go into a conference with an open mind, a desire for knowledge, prepare yourself, and then… have fun. Remember how much learning excites you. Find topics you love. And most importantly remember how much what you learn at this conference can make a difference in the lives of those you work with every day.
I am sure I have not hit every conference tip above. What have I missed? Share your favorite conferencing tip below!