Going to a conference is like attending a live performance. It is interactive, a shared experience. The audience and the presenters are sharing time, space, and focus. Everyone there has dedicated his or her time to this particular event. A good conference will enlighten you and stimulate you to action like nothing else. Don’t have time to go? If you want to develop as a teacher, you don’t have time not to go.
One of the best reasons to attend professional conferences regularly is that face-to-face contact has much more impact. In the best-selling novel The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho writes: “I don’t know why these things have to be transmitted by word of mouth, he thought... He had only one explanation for this fact: things have to be transmitted this way because they were made up from the pure life, and this kind of life cannot be captured in pictures or words.”
Some ideas are just best transmitted through oral language, by word of mouth. When we are in the presence of others, there is something meaningful exchanged that goes beyond the mere information. Perhaps it is subconscious body language or micro-expressions or even pheromones, but interaction with a live speaker is different. Attendees can all catch the same idea. It is exciting to be sharing ideas that you can use on Monday morning from teachers who will being doing the same thing.
Here is what you can expect to happen to you when you begin to attend quality conferences regularly:
1) You will begin to find your tribe.
You will realize that you are not alone. You will realize that you are amidst like-minded people. So often we teachers go into our classrooms, close the doors, and deal with only students day after day. This is a general sense that you belong here; that these people are like you. They may not all look like you do, but they think like you. They want to get better at teaching too.
There is great reassurance in finding that there are others like you.
2) You will quit kidding yourself.
We all go through plateaus in our development. We improve for a while and then we level off. On these plateaus, our teaching stays the same from year to year. That can become dangerous, because when we stay at the same level of development for too long, we begin to justify behavior. We kid ourselves into thinking that we know enough, that we are good enough at our jobs, that we do not really need to improve much.
We all have heard about the teachers who use the exact same lesson plans and techniques year after year. I once worked with a teacher who would photocopy the plans that his father had used 25 years earlier to submit for his weekly plan. You do not want to be that teacher. You do not want to have one year of experience and just repeat it for 20 years.
3) You will begin to make connections.
The more you go back to a conference, the more and deeper connections you will make. You may find a mentor. Not one person in a hundred will contact a speaker to follow up on an idea they heard at a conference session. But you can become that person. You might find a teacher like Colorado teacher Doug Bowman, who did his first presentation at our state conference 40 years ago. He is retired from the classroom, but he still actively presents innovative ideas all across the country. Teachers like Doug have seen a thing or two. They can help you.
You may also eventually find mentees, people whom you can help. This may take some time. But if you stay open to talking with new people, you will find someone who needs your help. Even if you are an early-career teacher, you will find someone who knows less than you do in some area. You can become the mentor that someone else desperately needs.
4) You will quit conforming.
Without regular contact with challenging ideas and colleagues, most of us will follow the easiest path. We will follow our old paradigms, the old conditioning. We become the product of other people’s habits—some good, some bad. We do not know if they are effective or not. We absorbed the feel of teaching as students, and when we are under stress, we will revert to that old programming.
But with exposure to new ideas, you will begin to adopt new ways of dealing with students, new ways to approach content. You will quit hitting the autoplay button when you are under classroom stress.
5) You will acquire the steps.
C. S. Lewis once commented, “As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing, but only learning to dance.”
Newbies need steps. Following the formula is how any new skill is acquired. Learning how to teach is like learning how to dance. It takes time and focused practice to develop the flow. Once the steps become ingrained, you can really start to perform, as a skilled dancer would. The teacher leads and the students follow. A good lead dance partner can make the other dancer better. We need to do that with our students. We get better at the steps of teaching by seeing good examples and through deliberate practice.
As you see other presenters showing off their teaching moves, you will begin to acquire the steps they are using. When you first begin teaching with a new technique or method, it can feel awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable. But learning the steps of the dance is appropriate for beginners; it is the only way of entering into the dance. Learning the steps opens up a reality where we can begin to master the method. The dance is worth learning and practicing. You must not abandon it for the fads and novelties of your previous experience or for personal preference.
6) You will catch a vision of what your teaching can be.
You will be open to new ideas. The different setting and the different people will be catalysts to change who you are and what you are capable of doing. Your expectations will begin to change. You cannot hang around with high-performing people without changing.
7) Some of your colleagues will think you are crazy.
When you start to get excited about what you are learning about teaching, some of your colleagues will. I have actually had co-workers snidely ask me how my teaching is going, as if that were the least interesting and most nerdy thing anyone could ever talk about.
8) You will be better equipped to deal with tomorrow.
“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – American social philosopher Eric Hoffer
When you are isolated in your classroom every day, you may get better at certain skills. You may even get better throughout the day as you tweak your lessons. But without infusions of new ideas, methods, and techniques, you will not be prepared to deal with the future.
9) You will start doing old things in new ways and for better reasons.
You do not become a better teacher by doing certain things but by doing things in certain ways. You will begin to realize that it is not always specific activities but the intent behind the activities, the spin and emphasis that you put on them, the deeper reasons behind what you are doing. As you begin to absorb the deeper principles behind your classroom practice, you will cease to be the kind of teacher that Alfie Kohn describes in Punished by Rewards: “The overwhelming numbers of teachers... are unable to name or describe a theory of learning that underlies what they do.”
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in April, 2017. At the time, Bryce Hedstrom was a teacher, author, teacher trainer, and president of the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers. He still wants to be a better teacher, and to help others who are working on that same goal. He has free materials to help teachers, a blog, and professional products on his website, brycehedstrom.com.