I love to be in my classroom. I love being around my students, helping them learn, create, explore, and examine. But there are a number of days each year that I voluntarily leave my classes with a substitute in order to attend or present at a professional conference.

This is a tough financial time for school districts and individuals alike. I honestly feel that in order to be an effective teacher, I have to be constantly learning myself. I have to stay ahead or at least abreast of current trends and best practices. I’m not going to be able to do this by locking myself in my classroom every day. I’ve got to get out and talk with others, share what I’m doing that works and what doesn’t work. As teachers we are all part of a special community. This is a community of people who WANT to help others succeed. We want to help our students as well as our peers. It’s who we are.

Everyone approaches an event like a full-day conference differently. It is how you approach it, though, that dictates how much you feel you got out of the conference. What are the things that attendees do to make their attendance more productive and valuable?

Arrive Early

Do not arrive as registration is closing. That forces the registration folks to rush through giving you your materials. It won’t give you time to ask these wonderful volunteers (usually) questions about the day. It doesn’t give you adequate time to walk around and figure out where the presentation room are. It doesn’t give you time to look through the program for any changes to sessions.

Most conferences have a registration time of approximately an hour. Plan on arriving during the first half of that hour. After receiving your materials, walk around the building and look through the program; you’ll have time to grab a cup of coffee and network with the others who also arrive early.

You definitely want to talk to these folks. They are the ones who drove five hours because they really wanted to attend this ONE session. Or they are looking into the same topic as you or have some of the same questions or concurs.

Come with a List of Questions or Concerns

Why are you attending the conference? What are you looking to find out, answer, or collect information about? Somebody is paying to send you there, get your (their) money’s worth!

I like to simply put a list of questions in a note taking app on my phone or iPad. Then when I find information on these things I can type it right with the question. Try it. It’ll help direct your day and plan the sessions you are going to attend.

Use Social Media

Social-Media-IconsMost conferences that are worth their salt will promote a hashtag for the day. Something like #uticatech, might be used. The hashtag identifies the conference and the location. Hashtags are used in all forms of social media today, the biggest being Twitter. Follow the hashtag and you’ll learn a whole lot more compared to simply attending the conference.

Other attendees will tweet or share what they liked, and didn’t. They’ll also tweet what they learned in sessions you may not have attended. You’ll learn three times more when you follow a hashtag during a conference.  The conference organizers will hopefully be tweeting, perhaps about cancelled or moved sessions. They might also be promoting sessions that you should attend. And you can add to it by tweeting your favorite sessions, helpful tips, and tidbits that you learn. Leveraging Twitter during a conference will also help you meet other attendees, further growing your professional network. If you don’t use Twitter, learn more about it here.

Attend the Meet-up Sessions

Many conferences have meet up sessions at the beginning or end of the day. Attend this. They’re almost always loud, busy, and a lot of fun. The sessions are designed to allow teachers and administrators to meet up and share stories, trends, current practices, etc…

It is one of my favorite and most worthwhile sessions at a conference and I always attend. It is something that I look forward to because its fun and valuable.  We’re all there for the same reasons, and that often means that we have something to offer to others. I’ve published work, planned professional development, and connected classes with teachers that I met at conferences.

Use the Conference App

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 1.49.59 PMA number of conferences now are using an app for your smartphone or tablet in lieu of , or as a supplement to, a paper or printed conference schedule. These apps usually have more than the schedule built into them. Often you will see presenter information, a list of who is signed up to attend the session, resources, and comments.

This is a great tool for you. Download it ahead of time. Check off the sessions that you plan on attending. Use this tool to figure out if this session is what you really want. After the session, leave a comment in the app. That way other conference attendees can see that and your comment can help others decide if the session is right for them. Many of these apps also allow you to connect with other conference attendees through their Twitter or LinkedIn profiles.

Know Who is Presenting

There are rockstars out there folks. Ordinary looking people who walk among us and look normal. When they present, whatever the content, they knock your socks off! They excite and encourage you, and pump you up to be great. There are a few people who, when I see their name on a program, I go to their session.

Do a little bit of research about the listed presenters or ask around. The really dynamic folks are talked about. I don’t mean Lady Gaga status or anything, but folks will know their names. Go to their sessions.

Report Back

Finally, don’t be stingy with your learnings. Sending out your notes is probably the toughest thing to do after attending a conference. You’ve spent an entire day getting your mind blown by awesome people, ideas, and products and you’re wiped out. Before you head home, take a moment to email your notes from the meeting to your department head or building principal. These are the people who would know if any of your takeaways would be useful for someone else in your building or district.

The reason that I attend conferences is to become a better informed, up-to-date, more effective teacher. It can be tough to be out of your classroom for even one day. So the next time you’re headed out to a conference give a few of these things a try. I think you’ll end up with a better, more valuable, experience.

Lastly, if there is anything that you think I forgot to include in my list, put it in the comments below. Thanks!

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