Monday, April 30, 2012

Conferences as Professional Development?

Last week was a crazy, hectic and tiring week at both the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM)  and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conferences. I mentioned these conferences in my most recent post, which sad to say was over a week ago. The conferences, from a vendor perspective, are a lot of set-up, talking, preparing for big events we host, preparing for presentations I was doing, and just being constantly ready for the next day, which comes pretty quick after a 12-14 hour day of working! If you want a great perspective, read Karen Coe's blog Behind the Scenes at NCSM and NCTM. Despite the long hours, the sore feet, the loss of my voice, my overall feeling from both conferences was that they were both great events, and that it was both gratifying and encouraging to meet, talk with, and hear what math educators are doing in the 'real-world' to engage their students.

Which leads me to my title - are conferences such as NCSM and NCTM really beneficial as a professional development experience? I have been attending both these conferences for years, as a teacher, supervisor and now as a vendor, and it is obvious that attendance has dropped off for both, but those educators that were there were motivated and dedicated. My honest opinion, especially after this year's interactions with so many teachers and teacher leaders, is yes - conferences can still be an effective form of professional development. Because, despite the constant harassment and negativity that surrounds teaching, teachers and education this past year, what I saw was a group of educators, young, old, new to the professional, retired, and everything in between, who were there to get ideas, strategies, and connect with others for support on helping students learn.

There are significantly better ways to provide professional development, especially if you are looking to make sustained change in practice: long-term collaboration, hybrid or blended professional development, online learning, Professional Learning Communities, to name but a few. However, there is nothing like a conference to provide an opportunity for educators to meet others face-to-face, connect with leaders in the field, hear and see new technologies, strategies, and share and learn ideas on teaching your specific content. It's empowering, it's rejuvenating, and it allows for some really great connections to be made. So, while the cost of attending face-to-face conferences is often prohibitive, not to mention time away from the real job of teaching and educating, I do think conferences still have a purpose and should still be considered as one possible way of helping educators learn about their craft.

For me personally, I got quite a bit out of this years conference:
1) I was able to connect face-to-face with several people I have only ever 'met' or talked with via email or twitter.  That was wonderful to put a face to people I feel very connected to.
2) Talking with so many math teachers and math leaders who shared what they were doing in their classrooms or districts made me even more committed to try to support them in whatever way I can.  There are so many dedicated educators out there who are doing amazing things with students and teachers and I met quite a few of them and feel honored and humbled by their dedication, despite the negative environment out there.  It was inspirational. Perhaps some of our politicians, media folks, and policy makers should consider spending some time at conferences actually meeting and talking with real educators - perhaps they would then have a real perspective of the challenges as well as the hard-work and commitment that really goes on in education.
3) Participating in Key Curriculum's Ignite! sessions and listening to the 10 amazing presenters made me realize that insight and inspiration in education are all around us.  Education in this country is not always what it is portrayed to be in the media, and that alone was great to hear and see.
4) Meeting and greeting folks at the Tech User Group and seeing the excited folks who came to play and learn about Sketchpad, TinkerPlots and Fathom at the booth, made me even more excited about technology's place in mathematics and more committed to the work I do with Key. It also gives me hope for the future and my continued emphasis on education technology.


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