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Developing people, developing schools

Conferences are good for professional development

As I reflect on how much I enjoyed this year’s IATEFL conference in Manchester, I find myself thinking about the value of conferences for professional development.

I am reminded of a school training and development policy that I was reviewing a few years ago. Although the school attempted to encourage one or two teachers to attend an conference, the actual policy document stated that you had to give a talk in order to go. This made perfect sense to me at the time. After all, it’s an expensive investment for a school to make in a teacher. Except there was a small problem - I struggled to find teachers who actually wanted to go! Of course, there were always one or two eager beavers, but it was the same enthusiasts who came forward year after year. I still notice this phenomenon to this day – the same faces popping up at annual events. As lovely as it is to see familiar faces and to feel part of a learning network, I have also been a bit concerned about this, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, so I wanted to reflect on it here.

Do you want to give a presentation?

At that time in the school I mention above, I was committed to trying to encourage as many teachers as possible to submit proposals for presentations so we could select successful candidates to attend a particular conference. But I was fighting a losing battle - few teachers came forward.

Of course, there is a whole range of personal and professional reasons why teachers didn’t come forward. But the reluctant group that most interested me at the time were the teachers who seemed potentially keen but were held back by a lack of confidence. Some would say, “I don’t have anything to talk about” while others would say “I don’t want to do a presentation in front of an audience of complete strangers”.

Remembering this, I also recall someone I knew many years ago, who wasn’t a teacher, but who believed that giving presentations at an international conference was the same thing as teaching in a classroom. I found this wasn’t an unusual perspective for a non-teacher to have; after all, teachers stand in front of groups of people and talk all the time! However, if you were to ask teachers themselves, I think many would say there is a big difference. Presenting to a conference audience in an unknown setting compared to teaching a class of students in your own school behind closed doors, involves different skills and levels of confidence. So, given the feedback I was receiving from teachers, I started to realise that there is perhaps a distinct difference between wanting to attend a conference versus wanting to give a talk at one.

Focus on learning

So let us go back a step and consider why it is valuable for teachers (or managers) to attend professional conferences in the first place. And why it is good for schools to encourage them to do so.

From the management perspective, teacher presence at a conference is good for the school reputation and brand. It puts the school name in the programme and the teachers in attendance carry out the role of ambassador for their school. Perhaps teachers don’t see it like this, but the representative role is valid nevertheless.  

But for the teachers themselves, and for the academic team at the school, attending conferences is usually for professional development purposes. So how can schools maximise the potential for learning from conference attendance?

Focus on Impact

The concept of professional development for teachers has moved on considerably in recent years. The emphasis nowadays is on continual development (CPD) rather than solely on training and qualifications. The value in attending conferences is from learning what is going on in the wider profession and to note developments in your specific field of interest. If teachers bring back what they have learned and share it with their fellow teachers in the school, this can be extremely beneficial.

It is good to encourage people to attend conferences, but, in my opinion, the emphasis should be put on learning rather than speaking. If you are distracted, stressed or anxious, you are less likely to be open to learning. It is better to allow the space and time needed to enjoy what a conference offers without worrying about what you have to do yourself. Of course, if you want to give a talk, all well and good. But the school can benefit in other ways without this having to be a requirement.

Conferences offer excellent opportunities for professionals to gather fresh insight into the world of education beyond their school walls. They get to meet other teachers or managers and to discuss and debate pertinent issues. Learning collaboratively away from one’s working environment and finding time for reflection and peer discussion is so beneficial. Pre-conference events (PCEs) are particularly good for this purpose as you spend the whole day with a group of international people who are interested in the same themes as yourself, but who work in completely different contexts and therefore bring fresh and varied perspectives to the discussion.

Focus on selection

So, if I’m looking to select school represeatnatives to attend a conference, what should the criteria for selection be? I’ll suggest a few points here, but I would be keen to hear your thoughts on the matter.

  • Suitable candidates need to be keen learners and active not only in their own professional development, but in the development of other as well – or they exhibit the potential to be so in the future – the conference might be a positive tipping point.
  • Discuss with the person in question beforehand what they might focus on at the conference; what will be interesting to them personally, and also relevant to the school?
  • Consider how they will record, disseminate and share what they have experienced and learned when they return to work. Do this before they depart for the conference.
  • If the candidates are quite keen to give a presentation, but very nervous about it, why not suggest they do it with a colleague?

Focus on momentum

The important priority is that the selected person(s) return to the school with new professional motivation and insight, both of which they can share with other memebrs of their team or within the staffroom. Cascading what they have learned is crucial.

But so many schools let this slip. So often, the teacher or manager returns to work and the usual work routine is immediately resumed; the excitement they felt whilst away soon gets buried once again beneath the daily grind of school life. So the school needs to act straight away to maintain the momentum for professional development across the school. It is also the right time for the school to start finding enthusiastic individuals to attend the conference the following year, thus striking while the iron is hot!

I have attended so many conferences. This time round at IATEFL, for the first time, I didn’t give a paper. I’m delighted that I didn’t. It took the attention away from me being predominantly preoccupied with my own contribution and allowed me the time and space to concentrate on what other people where saying and doing. The emphasis shifted from what I had to tell others, to listening to others and learning from them.

I never seem to tire of attending conferences; they are wonderful networking, learning events. It seems that no matter how many years experience you have, there is always something new to learn, or a new perspective on an old theme to be heard, or something you can share with others from your own experience. So long as you have an open mind and are driven by a learning agenda, conferences provide an opportunity to boost the momentum for learning and innovation across your school.