What Scared Me About a Professional Conference

I am in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, attending my first-ever major professional conference! When I started my new position in the summer, it was written into my contract that I was to continue my own professional learning by attending one national conference a year. I asked around, and it quickly became clear that Learning Forward was the preeminent conference that focused specifically on the professional learning and development of educators, and one that could not be missed. When I found out this year’s conference would be in Vancouver, it was a no-brainer—sign me up!

I’ve been looking forward to this conference for months, but as my date of departure got closer, anxieties began to crop up. I was very nervous about “doing it right,” because I’d never had the opportunity to attend a conference before and wasn’t sure what to expect! Now, on the morning of Day 2 of the conference, those anxieties are subsiding. Here are a few of my biggest worries, and how I know it will turn out just fine:

I want to make it abundantly clear that I am fully engaged in the professional learning—I don’t want anyone to think I’m slacking off on the conference and enjoying a vacation! Perhaps this wouldn’t be as big of a concern if the conference were in, say, Cleveland. But it does cost my district a decent amount of money to send me to Vancouver and put me up in a hotel for the four days I’m here. In the days leading up to the trip, I started planning some systems for how I would demonstrate my strictly professional focus: I would keep a running reflection journal, and share it with my boss! I would be tweeting constantly! I would be using every break to stay on top of the emails accumulating from “real-life work” back home! But after just one day participating in the conference, I’m realizing I didn’t need to worry so much. First of all, it was gently suggested to me that perhaps it wouldn’t be very helpful for me to share my reflection journal with my boss—picking out some key points and highlights to share would be more powerful. As far as Twitter goes, I did tweet a bit, when I had a moment and there was a particularly pithy sentiment that I could get across in 140 characters. Using the breaks to keep up with the work of my job? Um, that didn’t happen so much…I kept an eye on email, but really used my breaks to network, to continue conversations, and to recharge (more on that later). But the big realization I had yesterday was that I didn’t need to try to create ways to demonstrate my learning to my colleagues back home—the opportunities would arise naturally from the work I am doing here at the conference. Yesterday, I spent five hours learning about Linking Walks, an evolution of Learning Walks or Instructional Rounds. There was so much good information in that session, and so much immediately relevant to my work back home, that I am drafting a presentation to share with my superintendent and the union president, and then hopefully to bring back to our Learning Walkthrough Task Force. I see now that I don’t need to try to construct evidence of my learning just to show I’m not fooling around here—I can bring back actionable ideas that move our work forward.

It’s going to be exhausting to be “on” all the time! Trying to make conversation with strangers is scary, and exhausting to me. I am not one of those people who is good at schmoozing. As I thought about this conference, I imagined how difficult it was going to be for me to be going from meet-and-greet events to 2-3-hour learning sessions (where I have to be focused!) to more meet-and-greets, and repeat for three days! But again, I’m finding that my worry was unwarranted. This experience has been truly exhilarating, not exhausting. Of course it is still not easy to enter a ballroom with 3,200+ educators, and find a table to sit at for lunch. But once I do find a table with an open seat, the educators there are warm and welcoming and become part of my learning experience.  I’m getting to know so many fascinating people from all over the country and around the world, who are doing amazing work for students.  And you know what? When I do need time to recharge (figuratively, and literally—it’s hard to keep the phone and computer going all day!), the lovely Vancouver Conference Centre has tons of cozy chairs and tables, and I can find a spot to sit and rest and reflect before moving on to the next event. So I am finding the balance that works for me, but it’s a very different balance than I imagined—I am gaining so much from the interactions I have with the people I meet!

Finally, I’ve never been to Vancouver before! I don’t want to spend the whole time at the convention center! This worry is exacerbated by the first one—I know I’m here for business, but (as I’ve explored before) I believe so much learning comes from traveling and seeing new places! How do I reconcile the two? First, I had to come to grips with the fact that since the conference ends at 4:30 every day, I would not be able to do much sightseeing in the daylight. So I picked my #1 must-see place (Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, if you’re curious), and on Wednesday when the conference ends an hour earlier, I’m going to jet out to see as much as I can of the park before the sun sets. I’m also making the most of my time by conducting a self-guided culinary tour of the city, seeking out yummy restaurants in different neighborhoods for dinner each night. The city is decorated for the holidays, and nighttime walks on the water or through the city are absolutely beautiful. And today, I’m pushing the envelope on business casual by wearing my hiking boots (Working Girl, Canada style, I call it); I have a two-hour break between breakfast and my first session, and instead of staying inside the conference center and getting work done, I’m going to explore the nearby Stanley Park. I’ll get the work done in the afternoon, when it’s too dark to hike!

What do you worry about, when preparing for business travel? Or am I the only one who worries about these things?? Please share!

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About Teacher Cait

Massachusetts educator, learner, committed to finding joy every day. @CaitAhern
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