A Beginner’s Guide to Education Conferences

anne-anderson-2014By Anne Anderson

A teacher’s professional learning is essential for classroom success. Technology now offers educators a variety of professional development options: online PD courses, webinars and Skype, as well as podcasts.

While this form of PD is more cost efficient, there’s a lot to be said for gathering with hundreds (or thousands) of fellow educators for a major educational conference.

Think of it as the World Series or Super Bowl for Educators. You need to attend and experience this at least once!

The many benefits of conference going

I found that attendance at a national, regional, or state conference energized me. It was an opportunity to restock my teacher toolbox and restore my weary soul. The interaction with well-known authors, educational leaders, and colleagues from around the nation not only produced new ideas but also validated my classroom activities and practices.

My students benefited as well – autographed books for the classroom library, new activities, and a revitalized teacher.

National conferences attract the largest crowds and the most prestigious speakers; therefore, they cost the most. Regional conferences are more cost-efficient and offer top names in their specialized field. A state conference is most affordable; the program will feature several outstanding speakers. A benefit of a state conference is that sessions often address state-specific issues. No matter which you attend, you can select from a variety of sessions on a wide-range of topics.

Despite numerous budget cuts and travel restrictions, consider asking to attend an upcoming conference. It won’t be difficult to find a conference; what’s difficult is finding one nearby and within your budget. Do your homework to determine which conference meets your professional goals and needs and falls within an acceptable budget.

Tips for making a successful request

Follow district protocol when making this request. Most likely that means starting with your building administrator. You may be asking the school/the district to invest several thousand dollars in you, so be prepared! Here are some suggestions based on my own considerable experience:

aa traveler noncartoon►Don’t approach the principal in the hall between classes!
►Do make an appointment and go with documentation to support your request (e.g., preliminary program; sessions you are considering attending; proposed budget; conference website opened on your personal device, etc.).
►Don’t gush about how exciting it will be to go to Las Vegas or New Orleans!
►Do emphasize how this conference will help you reach your professional learning goals.
►Don’t apologize for asking for this opportunity to grow/learn.
►Do remind administration about the exciting learning activities you are using and how you want to expand your repertoire.
►Don’t say “I will do a workshop or whatever when I get back.”
►Do present a plan for redelivery – it can be vague, but it should reflect your willingness to share your new knowledge with others.
►Don’t press for an answer that day.
►Do send an email within 24 hours thanking him/her for considering your request.

Good luck! After all, it doesn’t cost anything to ask!


If the answer is No…

Politely – and perhaps, discretely – try to find out why your request was not approved. Check with your building/district leadership to determine if other funding options might be available (e.g., Title I, Title II, IDEA, PTA/PTO funds, etc.). Check with local community foundations to see if you qualify. Several years ago at a conference in Chicago, I meet three young teachers who raised their money by selling popsicles. Whatever works!

yes noIf the answer is maybe next year…

This response is encouraging! Start collecting brochures and information for the next conference. Be informed about funding options that might be available. Investigate fund raising possibilities.

If the answer is YES…

There’s plenty to do before you head off on one of the greatest adventures of your professional life. Hopefully you can take advantage of the Early-Bird registration and hotel rates that conferences offer. There may also be a price break if you are a member of the sponsoring organization. Group rates vary from conference to conference.

Suggestions for  a successful conference adventure

Preparing for the Trip

►Review your district’s travel policy carefully. It is important to know and follow policy regarding reimbursement for meals, tips, taxis, etc. This information can save you money, and a headache, during the reimbursement process.

aa lg beige name tags 300

►Have paper copies of everything (e.g., correspondence, conference registration, hotel reservations, and airline information) in your carry-on bag.

►Be sure your personal electronic device is set to receive airline updates/changes, as well as updates from the conference.

►Pack lightly because you will receive a bounty of promotional freebies and gifts from the vendors. It is always a good idea to include some Power Bars and snacks in your carry-on bag; hotel/conference snacks are expensive. Take along a collapsible water bottle to save the expense of bottled water.

►Regarding your wardrobe – you are not on vacation! Dress professionally. Take a light jacket or sweater because the meeting rooms are often cool. Ladies, a shoulder bag was always my purse of choice since the exhibitors will provide bags for your freebies.

The Conference

Check in at the Registration Desk to receive your conference credentials. Take time to acquaint yourself with the layout of the convention center and/or hotel. Study the official program booklet; there may have been changes from the earlier program you saw on-line.

How you take notes is a personal choice: electronic device? pencil/paper? Personally, I am pencil/paper note taker; I don’t have to worry about battery life or sitting near an electrical outlet. Many conferences now have handouts available on-line if you want to download prior to traveling. Most presenters will provide information about how to download their handouts.

aa attendees w tools 600

You may have preselected sessions when you registered. If your conference does not have preselected sessions, and you want to hear a popular speaker, get to the room early to get a seat. Years ago, I can remember sitting on the floor to hear Rick Wormeli. Fortunately, the fire marshal was not in the building that day!

Do not be a seat saver hog. You know – the one who comes early and saves five seats for three people who never show up.

The Exhibit Hall

Be prepared to see every imaginable product: electronics, fund-raising options, textbooks, workbooks, tee shirts, jewelry, and even beauty products! You can load up on freebies and register for some amazing giveaways. But, more importantly, the Exhibit Hall provides a great opportunity to connect with fellow educators. Waiting in line to get a book autographed was never a problem to me. I found it beneficial to visit with other teachers about how we used this author’s works with our students.

Many exhibitors scan your conference badge for drawings and contests, and to add you to their mailing list. However, it is a good idea to have a set of address labels (your name, school name, address) to use if needed. Don’t forget your business cards! A few more suggestions:

aa man presentation aud 300►Don’t get too caught up in the hype.

►Recognize that the vendor’s goal is sell a product. Some booths offer demonstrations of their products. Take advantage of an opportunity to learn about a new product or how to better use one you currently have.

►Don’t try to do the exhibits all in one visit. Go often!

►Most people head to the right when they enter. I usually started on the left since it was less crowded and easier to navigate.

►Many publishers offer special pricing and/or free shipping, so take advantage of those options. Major conference centers have UPS or FedEx stores on site. Shipping your purchases home may be less expense than the cost of overweight luggage.

►Make sure you get a prize for your administrator!

Bringing the Conference Home

You are energized! You can’t wait to tell everybody about what you saw and heard. You can’t wait to tell about the airline snafu and how you got bumped to first-class and ended up sitting next to the keynote speaker! Your teacher toolbox is restocked; your teacher soul is restored! Life doesn’t get much better than this; but first, you have to take care of business.

Turn in any/all forms required by your district as quickly as possible to start the reimbursement process. Send handwritten thank-you notes to the people who helped fund your trip.

Since you are on overload – so many strategies, tips, ideas, activities, book titles, and websites – pick and choose wisely.

Options for redelivering

aa puzzle people 300Faculty Meeting – Start with a validation and then share a strategy that is cross curricular. “Be brief, be seated” is always good advice.

Grade-level/Team Meetings – This is an opportunity to share content-specific strategies and techniques. Don’t throw too much too fast at your peers.

One-on-One – Deliver freebies and include a quick tip or word of encouragement. Everyone loves to hear about a new website!

Districtwide – If you offered to present at the district level, contact the appropriate person and schedule the presentation.

Using what you learned

Do not try to implement every strategy/tip/technique you learned. Focus on one strategy. Implement it and make adjustments before introducing another one.

Consider submitting a program proposal for next year’s conference. That will really make you grow professionally! And it enhances your chances of getting to go on another great adventure in learning.

Some conference ideas to get you started

Learn more about 2016 national and regional conferences sponsored by these organizations by clicking on the link. These are just a few of the many possibilities. Feel free to suggest others in the comments.

Association for Middle Level Education
ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education)
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
National Council for the Social Studies
National Science Teachers Association

Some of the best and least expensive conferences are EdCamps organized by educators in communities across the U.S., Canada and the world! The EdCamp Foundation keeps a very useful list of announced gatherings.

What have you learned about going to professional conferences? Tips to share? What are some of your favorites and why? Please comment!

Anne Anderson finally got out of the 8th grade after 24 years and 9 weeks. She spent the next 9 years sharing her expertise in literacy and writing with K-12 teachers and administrators throughout the district. She credits National Writing Project and Poetry Alive! as turning points in her growth as a teacher. She now shares her expertise nationwide as an educational consultant and through her website and her bi-monthly newsletter, Spotlight on Success.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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