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Before You Fly Off to That Conference
Have You Thought of Everything?

A big conference can be the best experience of your professional life -- or a big waste of time! To make certain it's a good experience, our "Principal Files" team shared their experiences and advice. Included: Tips to help you plan for -- and get the most out of -- the next conference you attend.

Is there a conference in your future? Perhaps you'll be attending one of the upcoming national conventions or a local convention of interest? Have you given much thought to your attendance at that conference? Have you planned ahead sufficiently?

We recently asked members of the Education World "Principal Files" team of principals to share their thoughts about conference attendance. They offered plenty of tips for preparing for and getting the most out of a convention. If you want to be totally prepared for that upcoming conference, keep reading, or click one of the links below to read our principals' totally practical pointers.

Before-the-Conference Tips
At-the-Conference Tips
After-the-Conference Tips


Which conference? Chances are there are several conferences you might like to attend. To choose the right one, check conference brochures or Web sites to learn more about the special focus and goals of each conference. Choose the conference you will attend by matching its goals to yours. If you are uncertain -- if there is not enough information available to make a solid decision about the value of a conference -- you might contact the sponsoring organization. Ask specific questions. Request a program from last year's conference.


Make your plane reservations early. Make flight plans before the options become too limited -- or too expensive. Be sure to plan for jet lag too. You don't want to arrive too tired to hit the ground running. You might plan to fly home on a Saturday; that way, you have Sunday to rest up before you start back to work.

Check and recheck your accommodations. Make sure your hotel has the correct accommodations for you, and that it is near the conference or that you have a convenient way of getting back and forth between the hotel and the convention center.

Will you want computer access? A laptop or an Alpha Smart might be used for taking notes that can be shared after you return to school. But will you need Internet access in order to be connected to school while you are away? If you're going to go to the trouble of carting a laptop across country for that purpose, be sure to inquire when you make your hotel reservations about the availability of an Internet connection in your room. Internet access is not a given. Without it, you won't be able to stay connected with folks at school or do work that requires being connected.

Who's running the show while you're gone? If you plan to run your school via phone -- and if you might sit in a hotel lobby for a couple hours each day dealing with school concerns --why go to the conference in the first place? Stay home and save the district some money. If you must, you might plan to call school in the morning and afternoon, but, better yet, don't add stress to your conference -- let others handle the problems. Similarly, avoid bringing work to do during conference downtime. If you are going to spend part of every conference day or all night doing paperwork or focused on tasks you would be doing at school, that work will detract from your conference experience.

Weather or not The day before you travel, check The Weather Channel or another source for the long-range weather forecast for your destination and pack accordingly. Layers work well in places where the temperature is unpredictable.

Have you pre-registered? You can avoid spending a lot of time standing in line if you pre-register for a conference. In many cases, sessions you might hope to attend will require pre-registration.

Have a plan. Give plenty of advance thought to why you are going to the conference and what you would like to get out of it. With what issues are you and your colleagues grappling? What new programs, developments, strategies, or products do you hope to explore? Before you travel, write down a few goals that you hope to achieve. If you know your priorities ahead of time, it is easier to schedule your time. If you have advance access to a convention program (via mail or online), read it thoroughly before you fly; or save it to read on the plane. Look at the sessions being offered as though you are going to present them to your own staff or to colleagues when you return from the conference. Create a "menu" of sessions that will help you achieve your goals. Mark first, second, and third choices for each session block.

You might even consider sharing the conference program with colleagues in advance; ask them if they would like you to attend a particular session based on their professional development needs.

If multiple people from your school or district are attending the conference, coordinate plans with them so all of you don't end up in the same sessions. Having goals and a plan can also help when you return to school. If you are expected to report back on your conference experiences, it is easier to synthesize needed information if you have considered your goals ahead of time.

Who's paying your way? If you are at the conference on your school district's dime, know in advance what expenses the district will and will not reimburse. Chances are you will not be reimbursed for expenses you cannot defend -- for example, expenses for gifts, cab rides around the city, liquor as part of a meal, admissions to local attractions Know in advance what, if any, budget you have to spend on materials at the conference.

If you are sending a teacher to a conference, try to send them with some money, even if it is only a token amount; that will send the message that it's important to pursue new resources and that you trust them to spend the money carefully.

Address labels save time. If you have them, be sure to bring business cards with you.

If you are sending teachers, have business cards made up for them in advance.

Alternatively, prepare in advance address labels with your name, school address, and email address on them. Business cards or address labels will come in handy when you want to add your name to a mailing list, sign up for a free publication, or enter a contest. Just stick a label to the card on which you register or sign up. You won't have to write the same information 100 times. And vendors will appreciate the labels too, since your typed label is bound to be more readable than quickly handwritten information,

Just graduated? Job hunting? Be sure to prepare and carry copies of your resume.

Check, doublecheck. Create a checklist of things to take. Gather all of your travel documentation -- tickets, maps, reservations, programs, photo ID for the airport -- in one place. Provide your significant others and the school office with information on how to contact you in your absence.



Plan for Your Day

Principal Jean Williams has learned from her conference experiences. First and foremost, she has learned to pack so her conference days are comfortable ones. Here are some things Jean carries with her each conference day:
--- Sensible walking shoes (in addition to the shoes you plan to wear that day). Conference sessions might be in different buildings. Also, if your hotel is not at the conference site, you might not get "home" again until evening. Those "sensible shoes" might be lifesavers.
--- Snacks such as granola or power bars or apples. These small items can provide an energy boost; and they can be pricey when purchased in convention centers.
--- A sweater or jacket. Just in case it gets cold outside, or the AC in the conference center is on too high.
--- A bottle of water. In case it gets hot inside the convention center or a classroom.
--- Highlighter pens. For marking up your program.
--- Paper and pencil or a notebook. For taking notes during the sessions you attend.
--- A set of sticky labels that are preprinted with your contact information. Use them when requesting reprints or samples, entering contests, signing up for freebies
--- Business cards. For making important contacts.
--- Walking-around money. For lunch, snacks, making photocopies, and other incidentals.
--- A small daypack. For carrying all this "junk"!

Have a plan. Don't feel overwhelmed with the huge program guide provided at registration. When you have a free moment -- hopefully your first night at the conference -- review the guide and make a final plan. Meetings and programs may take place at more than one hotel. The program guide provides maps that can help you gauge the distances between meetings. Choose two or three sessions for each time slot. That way, if one session is full when you get there, you still have a workable plan. Don't be afraid to attend a session or two in an area(s) that is new to you. If nothing appeals to you at a given time, plan to go to a session where you might find information of value or interest to colleagues back home; for example, you might go to a session that would benefit your teachers or counselors. Each day, bring your schedule -- or tearsheets from the program book -- as a reminder of meeting times and places. Always check bulletin boards for last-minute additions and changes to the convention schedule. (For additional ideas, see Have a Plan in the BEFORE THE CONFERENCE section above.)

Fill your time with sessions. That's why you are there! When you go to a session and you get a sense early on that it will not be as valuable as you thought it might be, then bolt. Go quickly to your second choice. Don't worry if you arrive a little late or if you need to leave early; attendees regularly come and go from meetings and programs.

Take good notes. At each presentation, make notes about practical ideas you don't want to forget. Note things you need to go back and research, get more info about, or follow up on; your notes might include names of specific programs, a school's Web site, or available resources. Make notes on notepads instead of on the session handouts so you can use the presenter's handouts at a faculty presentation after you return from the conference. Keep your notes with the handouts to help you organize information for a follow-up presentation or report. Make notes on aspects of oral and poster presentations that contribute to their effectiveness; use those notes when you are developing your own presentations. Note those things that detract from effectiveness and avoid doing them.

Pick up handouts. If you can't get to a session you would like to attend -- because of time constraints or a conflict -- see if you can stop by that session and get the handouts that related to it.

Set aside some "down time" too. It's good to fill your time, but you don't want to return from the conference so exhausted that you need a break! Attending speaker sessions, networking, and being "on" all day can be exhausting. It can create a feeling of mental clutter. Spend time during the day, and spend another 30 minutes at the end of each day, to absorb and process what you have learned. Organize your thoughts. Are you achieving the goals you set forth before the conference? Reflect in a notebook or journal on what you are learning. Evaluate the best of the day and note something you want to know more about.

Fill out evaluations. Help conference organizers to improve by completing evaluation forms when they are provided.

Meet and greet. Networking is one of the most important advantages of attending a conference, so seek out colleagues. Sometimes you can learn as much or more from them as you can from the sessions. A great way to meet folks who share your concerns is to go to a session that really interests you and talk to the people gathered there. Get to the session early and introduce yourself to the people sitting near you. Ask for their business cards, and give them yours. Spend time talking to the speakers, book authors, vendors, and those you are meeting, and ask, ask, ask. Request recommendations for books, resources, or contact names that will support your professional growth. Make a commitment to schedule one breakfast and one lunch meeting each day with someone you want to get to know, and make a plan to connect with those people again once you're home. Have some fun too! Conferences often include banquets, dances, performances, and field trips. Take advantage of those events as your schedule permits. If you approach the conference with the anticipation of learning, you will be surprised at all that you learn and how your life will be enhanced.

Don't hesitate to "steal." That's why you're at this conference. You are there to gather, or "steal," the best ideas and the best strategies from all those gathered from around the country or the world.

Climate control. Always take a sweater or light jacket with you, no matter what the season. Many conference centers have meetings rooms that might feel cool to you.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Take a camera to capture interesting displays to share with folks at home.

Plan time for exhibits. If you don't get a lot of opportunities to see current educational products, make it a point to visit the exhibit hall where sales reps are showcasing their wares. If that is a priority for you, don't attempt to see all the exhibits in one day. Make several short trips. Use the program guide to select and find specific exhibitors. You might want to attend exhibits early in the conference, before vendor giveaways run low. As for vendor giveaways, don't pick up everything you see in the exhibit hall. Instead, ask exhibitors to mail information to you after the conference. For materials you do pick up, make use of the on-site postal centers to ship materials back home. Take advantage of coat/bag-check services; you will have a much easier time if you aren't trying to lug everything around all day.

Safety first. Wear your conference badge to meetings and social events, but not on the street. Wearing the badge out in an unfamiliar city might "brand" you as a visitor and a possible target.


On the plane ride home. On your way home, review the notes you have jotted, and begin to organize a written reflection. Write about matches between your pre-conference expectations and the reality of the conference; new things you learned; surprises you encountered; and how you will use the conference to inform your own practices.

More time for reflection. Once home, take a look back at the goals you established for your attendance at the conference. Did you meet those goals? Did the conference meet your expectations? Is it a conference you might want to attend again in the future?

Follow up. Follow up by phone, email, or snail-mail with colleagues and presenters you met. Getting to know new colleagues and peers is one of the most rewarding components of conference attendance. You never know where that new relationship might lead!

Share and discuss. Even if you are not required to report on your time at the conference, you will retain new information and ideas better if you discuss them with co-workers. Share your notes or experiment with new ideas you learned about at conference.

"Principal" Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education World's "Principal Files" team shared their conference tips in this article.
  • Larry Davis, Doctors Inlet Elementary School, Middleburg, Florida
  • Michelle Gayle, Griffin Middle School, Tallahassee, Florida
  • Marguerite McNeely, Hayden R. Lawrence Middle School, Deville, Louisiana
  • Tim Messick, Providence Day School, Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Michael D. Miller, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida
  • Karen Mink, O.C. Allen School, Aurora, Illinois
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, Rock Hall Middle School, Rock Hall, Maryland
  • Dr. Les Potter, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Julie S. Ryan, Lower School, The American School in London, United Kingdom
  • Jean Carolyn Williams, Turner Middle School, Lithia Springs, Georgia
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas

To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright© Education World

Last updated 02/28/2012