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The Best Convention Speakers We've Seen...

Have you been to a conference session that truly inspired you? Have you run into a speaker whose message changed the way you do things? Improved your school? Improved your life? Our "Principals Files" principals name the speakers you must see! Included: Which speaker has inspired you?

Image Each time we go to a state or national conference, one or two speakers always seem to stand out above the rest. Perhaps it is the power of her message that inspires us. Or maybe it is the simplicity and practicality of his ideas.

Do you find the same thing?

We wanted to hear about the conference speakers whose messages inspired members of our "Principal Files" team, so we asked them: What was the best conference session you ever attended?

Watch the conference programs of your local, state, and national associations for these speakers!


Michael Miller, principal at Saturn Elementary School in Cocoa, Florida, says Larry Bell is one of the best speakers he's heard in recent years. "Larry Bell has taught in inner-city schools, and he knows how to motivate hard-to-motivate students," said Miller. "I went to his session hoping to find some ideas to improve the achievement level of our minority students."

Bell is a highly engaging speaker who gives down-to-earth suggestions that any teacher can go back to their classroom and implement tomorrow, added Miller.

Last year, Saturn Elementary's assistant principal took eight teachers to hear Bell speak for three days. A month later, Miller took eight more teachers. They all found Bell's message so inspiring that Miller got together with three other principals and brought Bell in on a Saturday to speak to area educators.

Miller and his staff have implemented many of Bell's strategies, including his Power Words strategy. "The Power Words are 12 words that -- if students know how to use them -- can raise performance on standardized tests," explained Miller. "We have posted the Power Words on all our doors, in the cafeteria line, in our commons area When students know all the words they get a bright pink button with a picture of a brain on it that says they know their power words. One of our teachers even put the words to motions and then went around the school teaching those motions to all the classes. Our music teacher put the words to music."

Bell was so impressed by the way that Saturn Elementary implemented his program that he invited one of Saturn's teachers to present at his "100%er National Conference" because 100 percent of her students passed the state-mandated tests for two years in a row.

"Larry Bell will have your teachers jumping in the aisles," added Miller. "He can motivate, entertain, and inform all at the same time."


Principal Ernest Elliott is one of many converts to an approach widely known as Love and Logic. "I have never before found anything that so impacted my belief set as the simple and commonsense manner of this approach. I am a total convert -- and I mean totally converted. Love and Logic has changed my professional life."

Anyone can use this approach to have a better, more productive, and more achievement-oriented learning environment and to make a solid connection with students, added Elliott.

How has Love and Logic impacted Elliott's day-to-day life?

"When students are sent to my office, I no longer become angry or loud with them," he explained. "I now talk calmly with them. I let them I know that they created a problem, and I help them find a way to solve it. If the student is upset, I calmly wait until he or she is ready to have an intelligent conversation.

"Love and Logic takes the onus for solving a problem from the educator and places it where it rightfully belongs: squarely on the shoulders of the student. With this approach, teachers do not need to work so hard at managing a classroom; they can rely on using the techniques to have students do it."

The Love and Logic approach works just as well in the home, added Elliott, who speaks from experience. "I am the parent of six children, and those who are still at home realize the change in the dynamics of our home [since I learned about the Love and Logic approach]."

Part of the reason Elliott became such a quick convert was the fact that the speakers who introduced the ideas to him, Jim Fay and Betsy Geddes, were expert at weaving in their public-school experiences with the relationship-based Love and Logic process. "Masterful use of vivid detail from their immense school experience clearly showed how Love and Logic is a natural fit for today's classrooms," said Elliott.

Since Elliott was introduced to the approach, he has trained numerous members of his staff and sent others to the training sessions presented by Fay and Geddes. "Love and Logic makes a monumental difference in their outlook toward students who 'cause problems'," Elliott said. "My job is now much easier, and my outlook toward students as a whole has greatly improved."


In Maryland, the state's department of education offers a Leadership Learning Series of seminars that provide personal and professional growth for current and future school leaders. Last summer, Nina Newlin, principal of Rock Hall Middle School, went to the second seminar in the series, "Building Positive School Culture to Increase Student Achievement."

"Building school culture is of great interest to me, since I believe great achievement in middle schools is not possible unless the culture of the school supports it," explained Newlin.


Sometimes it's not a single speaker who stands out. Instead, it's practical ideas that motivate and inspire educators.

Charlemeine Zemelko is principal of Chicago's International Charter School, which is part of the Edison Schools family. Zemelko told Education World of her staff's concern about students' reading comprehension. "So Edison put on a 3-day conference for their high schools," said Zemelko. "My English teachers and I attended. The conference gave us great materials and strategies that could be used across the curriculum. We brought those strategies back to our school and trained the entire staff. Now all teachers have the same materials and use the same strategies. All students read -- and use the same comprehension skills -- in every class.

"And it's working great!"

The seminar leaders were good, but it wasn't a speaker who served up the motivation Newlin sought. Instead, it was a chapter in a book.

In the course of the seminar, participants read a chapter from On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities (edited by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour). In that chapter, "Masters of Motivation," Jonathon Saphier suggested operating by a series of 'crucial messages' --

  1. What we are doing here is important.
  2. You can do it!
  3. I'm not going to give up on you -- even if you give up on yourself.

After the seminar, Newlin went right home and ordered the book online.

The power of those three messages is "so simple and yet so important," said Newlin. "It is ever so tempting, especially when we are at our most challenged and least resilient, to say something like 'Well why should I care; he (or she) obviously doesn't!' And yet, isn't that exactly what our most difficult children need? They are begging us not to give up on them, especially when they have given up on themselves."

At the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year, Newlin had large posters made of those three crucial messages. They are posted in every classroom and hallway of the school.

"As I walk around the school I read the messages again and again, and I think to myself that that is why I am in the job I'm in," Newlin added.

"There are lots of other chapters in On Common Ground that encourage equal analysis of our role in schools, but Saphier's chapter remains my favorite," she said. "I return to it when I need renewal."


Joan Pinkerton is another principal who has been inspired by On Common Ground. She has also attended training sessions related to Rick and Rebecca DuFour's work with the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) concept. The Dufours first inspired her at a 4-day institute back in 2003. Since then she has attended other sessions they have led.

"Their sessions are always filled with new ideas to try, and practical advice on how to move forward," said Pinkerton, the principal at Kent Primary School in Carmel, New York. "They are engaging speakers who speak from practical experience."

Ideas Without
The Expense

"The best conferences that I have ever attended were practical, hands-on conferences where I could use the things I learned the next day," Carol Baker told Education World.

While it is wonderful to learn about research-based practices, many of those involve spending large sums of money. "If they involve spending money, they are not much help to me as my school has very limited resources," added Baker, who is principal at St. Mary Catholic School in Plano, Illinois.

"State grade-level conferences sponsored by organizations such as Staff Development for Educators (SDE) and the Bureau of Education and Research (BER) are some of the best. I have sent many of my teachers, and they come back to school with lots of ideas they want to try out. The workshops provide a wealth of activities to engage even the most reluctant participants."

"I also like technology conferences that explore new ways to use old tools," added Baker. "Recently we attended a technology day sponsored by the Diocese of Joliet. Ian Jukes was the keynoter, and then there were numerous break-out sessions. Meg Ormiston did thought-provoking seminars on the one-computer classroom and power-searching with Google. Neither topic required expense to use right away, and my teachers were excited and energized."

The PLC concept places students at the heart of what a school is all about, added Pinkerton. The focus is on improving the teaching and learning process for students.

Pinkerton has taken the PLC concept back to her school where "we have set up learning teams, reworked our schedules so grade-level teachers can collaborate, and established group norms and common assessments. Our grade-level meetings often focus on student learning, what is working and what isn't, data analysis, and sharing good teaching practices. There truly is a focus on student learning as opposed to the mundane 'stuff' that often takes up meeting time."


The best conference session that principal Michael Shaffer ever attended was one presented by Dr. Marcus Nelson. It was at the National Title I Conference, which was held in Anaheim in the winter of 2003.

"Marcus is an enthusiastic presenter who actually had the staid Title I conference participants on their feet, clapping and singing," Shaffer told Education World. "The focus of his presentation was that Title I schools have reason to celebrate because we are making a difference in the lives of at-risk students all across the country."

"Nelson is a great cheerleader for public education at a time when we often wonder if the things we are doing are really making a difference," added Shaffer, who was principal of a Marion, Indiana, elementary school at the time he attended that conference.

"When I returned to my building, it was with the idea that while there were things we needed to do much better, and 'miles to go before we slept,' we were making progress and making a difference in the lives of children."

Shaffer has since moved from the elementary school to the principalship of Marion's McCulloch Middle School, "but the lesson from that conference is still fresh in my mind: we do far too little celebrating of our successes!"


Great Expectations is an Oklahoma-based non-profit whose mission is to inspire teachers and students. It seems the group's reputation is growing beyond the borders of Oklahoma! Witness that principal Jack Noles of Shallowater (Texas) Intermediate School was inspired by a recent Great Expectations session ("Roles and Attributes of Leaders") that was spun from Stephen Covey's work -- specifically his newest 8th habit: "Find your voice, and inspire others to find theirs."

"The presenter, Alan Johnson, was a major reason the day was so beneficial," explained Noles. "Aside from a very engaging personality and an array of entertaining talents, Johnson incorporated many 'tricks' to keep everyone engaged without embarrassing anyone or resorting to the 'same old' methods we have all experienced time after time.

"Above all else, what I came away with was very practical advice for myself and my staff."

The theme of Johnson's presentation was a timely one. "It fit in very well with the central theme at Shallowater this year -- the concept that every staff member is a leader and should assume their proper role as such."


Principal Duane Kline has seen a handful of great speakers in recent years.

"I attended a weeklong workshop on Learning Centered Schools by Mike Rutherford. He did an outstanding job of giving very practical strategies and methods for classroom teachers to use.

"Ruby Payne's work has significantly altered the way I looked at the competing cultures in our school. She wrote the book [A Framework for Understanding Poverty], literally, on understanding poverty and its impact on students in the public school. We have conducted a couple of book studies with her book, and the teachers involved unanimously declare it a challenging and informative -- if not attitude-changing -- work.

"The High Schools That Work national conference is, from my experience, the best 'shared best practices' conference. SREB does an excellent job year in and year out putting together the best practices aligned with the 10 'key practices' of the High Schools That Work model. The presenters are, for the most part, school-level practitioners who have experienced the trials and successes of implementing what it is they are talking about. Top notch!

"I caught Todd Whitaker (Dealing With Difficult Teachers; Motivating and Inspiring Teachers; What Great Principals Do Differently) at the 2004 NASSP national conference. He's an entertaining speaker who shares the most useful day-to-day ideas for school level administrators. Good stuff!"


  • Carol J. Baker, principal, St. Mary School, Plano, Illinois (Grades K-8)
  • Ernest Elliott, Mountain Home Junior High School, Mountain Home, Idaho
  • Duane A. Kline, Jackson High School, Jackson, Georgia
  • Michael D. Miller, Saturn Elementary School, Cocoa, Florida (Grades Pre-K-6)
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, Rock Hall Middle School, Rock Hall, Maryland (Grades 5-8)
  • Jack Noles, Shallowater Intermediate School, Shallowater, Texas (Grades 3-5)
  • Joan Pinkerton, Kent Primary School, Carmel, New York (Grades K-4)
  • Dr. Michael B. Shaffer, McCulloch Middle School, Marion, Indiana (Grades 6-8)
  • Charlemeine Zemelko, Chicago International Charter School, Chicago, Illinois

Updated 6/11/2012