Earlier this week I attended the National Principals Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The more I’ve immersed myself in interacting with other educators on a regular basis (through such means as social media), the more the conferences I attend have become about the who, and not so much the what. In other words, if I need an idea or resource, I don’t necessarily have to wait for a conference as I can reach out to someone whenever I want. At the same time, conferences are now primarily about connecting with old friends, making new ones (who I probably initially met on social media), inspiration, and conversations.
To illustrate the point, here are five conversations from the National Principals Conference that pushed my thinking, all of which took place on the same day.
1. We Need to Have Fun (with Brad Gustafson)
Early Monday afternoon I spent some time in a one-on-one conversation with Brad, an Elementary School Principal from Minnesota. As we reflected upon our current positions, one of us (I can’t remember who) brought up the importance of having fun while performing our jobs. While this idea may sound like common sense, it’s one that is easy to forget when we start to feel the pressure (internal and external) to excel at what we do to meet the needs of our students. That being said, as an administrator, three specific situations during which I have fun are when (1) I’m interacting with students, (2) students are benefiting from the work I’ve done with others, and (3) I’m surrounded by other educators and we’re all genuinely mutually supportive of each other because we all want to grow as professionals and people. For me, this level of self-awareness is important as it allows for me to intentionally find my way into positions that are enjoyable.
2. I Can Talk About Culture (with Jimmy Casas)
As someone who regularly presents at conferences, I usually shy away from confidently talking about school/district culture for two specific reasons. First, because I’ve been a classroom teacher for the majority of my career, I’m more comfortable presenting on pedagogy as this is where most of my experiences lie (although the line between culture and pedagogy can be blurred). Second, I’m 33 years old, and I have generally thought that there’s a lack of credibility when a younger administrator talks culture (as if attendees/participants ask themselves, “He’s so young. What could he have accomplished? Why would veteran teachers want to work with him?”). On Monday afternoon I ran this thought by Jimmy, and he disagreed, citing the fact that anyone can contribute to culture (and therefore talk about it), regardless of age. This dissenting opinion has given me a lot to think about.
On Monday night I was talking with Amber and Angela, and they touched upon the significance of purposely not researching and obsessing over exemplars prior to the creation of a product, such as when designing for Teachers Pay Teachers or putting together slides for a keynote presentation. When we first immerse ourselves in the work of others, what we then create could potentially be too heavily influenced by what we consume, and the end result might be something that is unintentionally unoriginal. A few weeks ago I experienced a comparable situation when I wrote a blog post, 5 Ways to Promote Student Agency. I was pretty sure others had previously written on this topic, but I waited to Google around until after I was done writing. Then, I refined what I had with the few articles I found.
During the same conversation, the three of us also discussed the importance of giving others credit for their work, such as when blogging or presenting. Obviously, if we are to use someone’s original content, credit should be given. Another scenario is when we integrate into our work something that isn’t widely known, such as a blogger writing a blog post around a lesser-known quote or a presenter repurposing a random YouTube video or meme. Here the gray area is when someone else, after experiencing our work, decides to use the same content. Should credit be given to both the author and the blogger/presenter who “found” the material? For example, about a month ago I saw Angela keynote a conference and one of her slides contained a Stephen King quote that I had never heard. What’s the protocol if I now want to use the quote?
5. New Initiatives Need Pilot Groups (with Ben Gilpin)
Late Monday night I sat down with Ben Gilpin, an Elementary School Principal from Michigan. During this time I took the opportunity to pick his brain about his school’s transition to Writing Workshop. (In my district, we’re at the tail end of this transition at the elementary level, and it’s about to make its way into the middle school.) Ben’s idea that caught my attention was the way in which he initially leveraged a pilot group to drive learning. A small group of teachers volunteered to be the first to implement Writing Workshop. Then, the following year, when it was time for everyone else to implement, the piloting teachers’ classrooms served as lab sites. And, time was also set aside for all teachers to have follow-up discussions and collaboration. As a result of hearing Ben’s idea, I began to think of ways in which we could possibly have middle level teachers learn from an experienced cohort of elementary level teachers.
In the End
I used to jam-pack my conference schedule by attending a session during every available timeslot. While I still make it a point to go to sessions, I’m now less hesitant to set aside time to meet friends (old and new), interact, and be inspired.
How do you get the most out of a conference?
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