Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Death of Teacher Conferences or I Can’t Believe I Miss My Canvas Bag

By on February 23, 2009

So, CATE (the California Association of Teachers of English) just came to an end.  The hotel was lovely.  All ran smoothly.  We were greeted with smiles aplenty, and everything ran on time.  Sheridan Blau, Kelly Gallagher, Carol Booth Olson, Taylor Mali, Jim Burke.  They all presented there.

But despite it all, CATE is clearly a conference (along with others) that is struggling for breath amidst budget cuts.Where the halls used to bustle with educators waiting in line, Starbucks in hand, for the front row of a particularly hot session, they now have plenty of elbowroom, and many of the seats inside the rooms are empty.

I first walked in to find that there were no canvas bags to put our schmutz.  Not that it mattered, there wasn’t any schmutz.  Who had the funds to provide schmutz?  Not the publishers, surely.  I mean, schools are struggling to find the funds to adopt, so publishers can’t even provide a free highlighter to circle the sessions in the program that we would want to attend.

The exhibit hall had been downsized.  There were cancellations during many sessions of the conference. Two people showed up at the Gary Soto workshop.  Nobody showed up at the Flowers For Algernon session.  Love don’t get around much anymore, I tell you.

Perhaps conferences are an endangered species, but without professional development teaching dies too.

As a profession, we have to remain students or we shrivel up as educators. And professional development is that key in maintaining what it takes to be a current teacher.  It doesn’t just recharge your batteries; it makes sure that your model battery isn’t outdated.

Just think about the strategies that work in your classroom that you would never have known about if not for conferences.

Maybe you didn’t learn color-coding at a conference, but someone in your department did.  And then they taught it to you.  I learned Brushstrokes at a conference.  I learned podcasting at a conference.  I learned wikis at a conference.  How to function in PLCs, How to use Writers Notebooks, How to teach the Hero’s Journey.  All of these I learned at conferences.

But are these brain spas of “teachers teaching teachers” coming to an end?  And, if so, how do we replace them?  How would we fill that hole if they did?

Perhaps this is how VLCs (virtual learning communities) can help one day, but, as with anything, differentiation is the key.  Not everything can be filled with online, distance learning.  Just as we teach our students F2F (face-to-face), so must we also have that option as teachers to be taught F2F.

In the meantime, as with a lot about education, those teachers who really want to improve their craft will end up digging into their own pockets to attend conferences.  They’ll pay for their own subs, shell out the moo-la for their own hotel rooms, rush to the back of the exhibit hall to buy the supplementary curriculum that best suits their individual classrooms’ needs.

They’ll be laden down with books in their arms that they paid for to teach their district’s children.  But just as there is no funding to help pay for the materials, so are there no canvas bags in sight to help them carry their load.


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  1. Nancy Flanagan
    February 28, 2009

    Need another canvas bag? I’ve got forty of them in my closet (and I only kept the good ones).

    Your point about being able to do this work more efficiently is a good one–I’d do a f2f conference every three years instead of every year, if I had a steady stream of good content and conversation rolling in through my computer.

    But. There are some things that we haven’t been able to do via networking. MY annual conference (the Midwestern Music Educators) features a plethora of live performances of outstanding K-12 bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles and vocal groups. Watching them via live streaming (or watching/ listening to recordings) will not inspire me, or push me to grab a glass of wine at the free reception afterward and meet the teacher who made that performance happen.

    There are some things I could easily do without–the exhibitors, IMHO, could easily demo and shill on-line. But a lot of the energy at a conference comes from real-time mix/mingle/random encounters.

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