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Teacher Training:
Professional Development in Your Own Back Yard: Hosting Conferences at Your School

"Staff development that improves the learning of all students requires skillful school and district leaders who guide continuous instructional improvement."
-- National Staff Development Council

Included: Tips for making your homegrown conference a success.

Each year, schools and school districts spend thousands of dollars to send teachers and other staff members to out-of-town training conferences and workshops. Have you ever considered the advantages of hosting your own professional development sessions instead? Holding your own conference saves money that otherwise would be spent on travel expenses, allows you to gear the conference to the specific needs of your own staff, and exposes your faculty and staff to attendees from other schools, who provide fresh viewpoints, experiences, and networking opportunities.

Does holding your own conference sound like a big job to tackle? Actually, it's easier than you might think.

PICK YOUR FOCUS

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The most important -- and usually the easiest -- part of the conference planning process is choosing a focus. Perhaps your school is a math and science magnet school and you want to provide an opportunity for your teachers to share curriculum ideas? Perhaps your district has a heavy investment in technology and you want to provide teachers with innovative ways for using that technology in their classrooms? Perhaps your school has been awarded a grant to teach character education and you're looking for a program that really works? Successful professional development conferences focus on a specific theme that unifies the agenda and lets attendees know what to expect.

The key is knowing how specific or general your focus should be. If you emphasize character education at your school, for example, don't center a conference around the theme of "cheating." Keep the focus specific enough to be useful and general enough to appeal to a wide range of needs and interests.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Before investing time, money, and resources into hosting a conference, make sure you are not duplicating established local events. If possible, attend a few conferences in your area; note what's already available, discover what works and what doesn't work, and learn what other schools are interested in learning more about.

Don't just investigate what conferences are out there, however; also take the time to research

  • the types of sessions that will work best for the topic you plan to cover. You might consider, for example:
    -- hands-on workshops -- demonstrations/lectures -- discussions/roundtables -- expert panels -- keynote speakers
  • the learning styles, skill levels, and interest of possible attendees.
  • what you will need to support the event, including facilities, money, manpower, and so on.

FIND A LOCATION

Consider the following when determining the best location for your event:

  • Available space. For a small workshop, a single classroom might be all you need. If you expect to attract dozens or even hundreds of attendees, however, you'll need to figure out where to put them. Dining halls, libraries, gyms, or other large rooms also might be needed, especially for large group sessions.
  • Parking/public transportation: Can attendees easily get to the conference?
  • Cleanliness: How will the facility be cleaned, both before and after events?
  • Sharing space: Will anyone else be using the conference facilities at the same time you are? Will their presence be disruptive or detract from the tone you want to set?
  • Environmental issues: Is heat or air conditioning turned off after hours? Will excessive dust, noise, or clutter disturb attendees?
  • Permission: Whose permission is required (other than administrators and/or central office staff)? If you plan to use classrooms or other school space, be sure to ask permission from teachers and other stakeholders (band directors, drama coaches, and so on). Discuss rules or requests for taking care of that space.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Most conferences are held on weekends or during the summer, although some offer a few short sessions immediately after school. What is the most convenient time for your conference or workshop? What time will work best for your teachers and other possible attendees?

The National Staff Development Council has developed 12 Standards for Staff Development that will improve the learning of all students. In this series, staff development expert Lorrie Jackson discusses those standards and their practical implications for the educators in your learning community. For more information on the 12 NSDC standards for staff development, go to NSDC Standards for Staff Development .
Weekend conferences can conflict with teachers' family obligations. Summer sessions can interfere with vacations and summer employment. After-school workshops can be too short for certain topics. Often the best time for your conference is simply the "least worst" time!

After you pick the dates for the event, it's time to set up a schedule. Don't plan to start any earlier than 8:30 on a weekend or summer day. Provide time (15-30 minutes) at the beginning of the event for registering, socializing, and locating rooms. Breakfast treats always are welcome, but if your budget is tight, ask the PTA, band boosters, or other group to sell treats as a fund-raiser.

Sessions that do not allow time for a break should last between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours. Sessions that include a 10-minute break can last up to 3 hours. Lunch should last from 45 minutes to an hour, if you provide on-campus lunch facilities. If participants must leave campus to get lunch, schedule a 1.5-hour lunch break to give them enough time to battle traffic, order, and eat.

Try to keep as close to the scheduled times as possible, perhaps even sounding a bell to alert attendees to move to the next session. If situations arise that throw off the schedule, however, be flexible! The conference goal is to increase competency, not to run lock-step through a grueling schedule with no sense of what the sessions are about.

MOTIVATION THROUGH COMPENSATION

Some teachers will attend a conference or workshop simply to improve their teaching. Others need additional motivation to attend. Consider offering

  • a small stipend. Money matters!
  • a sub. For many teachers, just getting out of the classroom for a while is motivation enough.
  • freebies. If possible, make available software, supplies, books, booklets, or other handouts to those who ask for them.
  • food. Any food item not cooked in the cafeteria is usually in high demand!

Some less-appealing forms of motivation are still effective. Those include

  • administrative directive or encouragement.
  • professional development credit.
  • peer pressure.

SPREAD THE WORD

Now that you've selected a focus, located a site, set up a schedule, and provided motivation, it's time to spread the word! Publicize the event through all possible channels, including word-of-mouth, posters, the school newsletter, snail mail, and e-mail. Let a few key faculty members know why the event will be helpful and ask them to advertise for you.

When trying to attract teachers from off-campus, the wider the net, the better. Send e-mail to mail lists, call friends at other schools, and announce the event at local groups for staff developers or administrators.

Just sending out the information is not enough, however; you've got to make people want to attend. Use humor, gentle persuasion, quotes from previous attendees, and any other available means to "spin" your conference in a way that grabs people's attention and makes them want to learn more!

HINDSIGHT IS 20/20

After the conference, take time to assess its success. Ask participants to fill out surveys, e-mail their reflections, or simply chat with you in the hall to share their thoughts about the event. Collect all of them, but read none of themat least not for a few weeks. Why? Chances are that some will be glowing; others will be pleasant, but not effusive in their praise; and a few will be vicious and depressing. Taking time off before reading them allows you to put any wild or odd evaluations into perspective. In the meantime, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

EAST OR WEST, HOME IS BEST

Hosting a conferences isn't hard. Just be aware that training held at your home school might not be seen as "professional" or "expert" enough for your own teachers, even though they're willing to travel hundreds of miles for the same -- or a worse -- experience. Use the suggested motivational tools to overcome that common misperception -- and get ready for an exciting and rewarding professional development event right in your own backyard!

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