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  • Writer's pictureShawn Sheehan

8 Things Every Ed Conference Needs

Over a two-week time period, I attended the State Teachers of the Year Conference in San Antonio and the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET²) National Convening in San Diego.

These are two very large conferences that involve educators from across the country and have big backers. The first is led by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). ECET² is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I took detailed notes about what I enjoyed most about both of these education conferences and have created a list of eight things every education conference should have. Some items will cost money and some are cost-free. To create a truly powerful and memorable convening, you’ll want as many of these elements as possible.

1) Culturally Responsive Sessions and Workshops

Five minutes into my first breakout session at ECET², I realized that my teaching needed an overhaul. I’ve been doing it wrong. And it’s not that I’ve been doing harm. It’s just that, as William Anderson (@Mizter_A) from Denver Public Schools and Brandon White (@ClassroomB) from Rochester City School District presented “Culturally Responsive Teaching: From Theory to Praxis,” I quickly recognized that I can and should be doing better by my kids. My students of color need validation of their identities and not my interpretation of how they can make it in today’s society. My students can’t follow in my footsteps – even if our footsteps are very similar. They need to know that their footsteps are their own and that they have a place in our community. We give shout outs to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and call it good. Nope. Not even close. It’s about Emancipatory Pedagogy.

Oklahoma’s own Dr. Anthony Marshall from THE Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa solidified my newfound perspective with his presentation “Empowering African American Young Men to Excel in Schools.” Our students should see themselves in the work they’re doing. They should be able to use the knowledge gained in our classroom once they walk out the door. This is where, as William Anderson pointed out, keeping it local means everything. Our students’ realities in Oklahoma City are not the same as those in Norman, let alone Denver or Chicago or Miami. It’s 2016 and whether you’re an administrator, educator, support staff, or board member, you need to be talking about culturally responsive instruction.

2) Good Food (and Drinks)

I definitely don’t eat as well as I did at the STOY & ECET² conferences. I’m the type who makes a little something for breakfast every day, but not eggs, bacon, sausage, yogurt, fruit, cinnamon rolls and juice. This is probably the second most expensive item on this list, but it’s important because this is how I felt most elevated and celebrated. The lunches were well-balanced, featuring sandwiches and pasta salads, and the dinners were reflective of the excellent choice in venue. Both conferences went all out on the last night, and encouraged participants to dress more formally for a more elegant evening. Making drinks available depends on the type and time of function, but it means that you’re treating adults like, well, adults. I’m not a drinker and rarely exceed one in an evening, but it was a grand gesture in my eyes. I felt like I was being treated as a professional and that is valuable!

3) Assigned Seating for Some (But Not All) Activities

Teachers tend to stay in their circles. At both conferences, there were times when I was assigned to sit with educators I did not know and this paid off BIG TIME. Meeting teachers from across the country strengthened my teacher network and helped me find comfort knowing that others are going through similar struggles. I’ve attended conferences where tables filled up quickly with people who worked at the same schools. When you reduce that, unexpected collaboration grows in powerful ways. So mix it up at lunch and during activities!

4) Teacher Leader Keynotes

I must say, I’m getting really tired of authors and researchers serving as keynotes – folks who are saying exactly what you’d expect them to say. At the STOY and ECET² gatherings, keynotes consisted of colleagues who are doing amazing things in their classrooms. But they didn’t talk about strategies or pedagogy or lesson plans. They simply told their stories. Stories that made us laugh, cry, dance and remember why we got into this business.

Mentally clocking out was not an option because we were so engaged. Phones were out not as distractions, but to take pics and video as prized memories to share. Degrees and certifications after their names were not a requirement. They just needed to be engaging speakers and passionate teachers with a message that we would understand and appreciate.

5) Homeroom and Colleague Circles

These circles provide time designated for you to regroup with colleagues with whom you share something in common. You might teach in districts that are close in proximity or share similar student demographics. Or maybe you all teach the same subject. Whatever the common thread, you need time to visit with a core group multiple times during the conference. I was fortunate enough to be among the teachers from southern states at the STOY conference and I must say, it felt like being home.

I said, “I’m proud to be in this group. I’m looking at Alabama and Mississippi and if you pick a ranking, we’re almost always at the bottom. Spending per pupil, health, incarceration rates – we basically just rotate between 48th, 49th and 50th. And yet, we’re here as proof that there are educators in the south who are doing what they can with what they have, and doing it well. We know what the perceptions of our respective states are and we have more hurdles to clear, but we won’t stop trying to make a difference. We won’t give up because our kids deserve the best.” I cherished my time with my homeroom at the STOY conference and loved my colleague circle at ECET². Every education conference should provide time to meet with a core group of educators. These folks will become your family.

6) A Hashtag and Social Media Experience

Assuming you address some of the items above, your attendees will want to share/post/Tweet the cool things that are happening at your conference, so you’d better have a #hashtag that they can use! #NTOY16 and #ECET2 now pop up automatically on my phone after using them so much. Oh, and activities that lend themselves to photo ops are ideal.

7) An Application/Nomination Process to Attend

The two conferences I attended meant so much more to me because I had been invited to attend. There are teachers out there who live to attend PD. They’re at everything and it’s just a checklist for them. By making it invite-only, you can mix things up a bit. I was especially fond of ECET²’s format of nominating attendees.  Dr. Anthony Marshall nominated me to attend and speak, and that is very personal and special to me. Now, I look forward to paying it forward and nominating a colleague to attend the next ECET² conference! If funding is tricky, this is how you can keep costs down, too.

8) Location, Location, Location

Last, but certainly not least, you need a nice location. Sometimes, this is hard and there are limited options, but it’s worth it to hold your conference in a nice place. I started my days with these views:


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