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Professional Development: Maximize the Ed Conference

Jordan Catapano

Headed to an education conference sometime soon to expand your professional development? Then you don’t want to miss these thoughts on how to maximize your time while you’re there and get the most out of that professional development conference. The more you take home with you, the more potential impact you can have on your students!

Turn Off Your Email … and Your Phone … at the Professional Development Conference

At one recent conference I attended, I sat next to two teachers who were on their email during an entire presentation. How much did they get out of the presentation? Probably not much!

It’s no surprise that email and cell phones serve as major distractions. As teachers, we especially know how much of a roadblock to learning an ill-used screen can be. Why, then, do we have so much trouble unplugging ourselves from these distractions when important learning is right in front of us at an education conference?

Try to keep your computer and cell phone entirely away. The further from you the better, so you’re not tempted to use them at unnecessary times. If you absolutely must have them, then turn off the notifications you might normally receive. Every moment you spend responding to an email or rattling out a text is one moment less you’ve paid to your surroundings at your conference.

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Prepare In Advance to Take Notes

No matter how good of a listener you are, you are likely to remember very little of what you hear during a conference or training. Research from the Harvard Business Review tells us we are likely to only remember 25 percent of what we hear two months later. “In fact, after we have barely learned something, we tend to forget from one-half to one-third of it within eight hours.”

Because we remember what we hear so ineffectually, it’s important to prepare ourselves to be active note takers. Since we’re prone to forget many of the important nuggets of information we’ll hear at a conference, find a way to produce notes that will supplement your memory and learning process. What will you use to take good notes?

Each conference or presenter is different, so be flexible with your notetaking process. Some presenters will gladly share their slideshow with you, if they have one. Others have pre-crafted notes for you to follow along with and add your own thoughts. Others might have handouts or documents that supplement their speaking. Others might not provide anything at all. What is your notetaking style, and how will you make sure you are retaining as much information as possible? Consider your approach in advance and mentally prepare yourself to bring back good notes you can review on future occasions.

Think About the Applications for Your Classroom or School

We tend to absorb new information better when we are listening for a purpose. That purpose isn’t too hard to define: We are teachers, and we want to amplify our impact on students.

Enter the conference with a few questions in mind that you are seeking answers to. They can be as general as, “What information from this presenter is practical to apply in my classroom?” Or your questions can be specific, such as, “What grouping technique strategies can I bring home from this conference?”

The more intentional our listening, the more likely we are to catch that essential information that will lead us to worthwhile improvements. If you’re not sure what kinds of information you’ll hear at any given point in the conference, then consider listening for what seems to have a most direct implication for what you do. Are there presentations specific to your school or age group? Are there portions of a talk that address a specific problem you’ve experienced? Is someone sharing information related to something similar you’re doing that will help you rethink curriculum?

Turn your listening ear into a well-designed net that will catch the most worthwhile and practical information you are likely to apply.


Conferences are populated with hundreds or thousands of like-minded educators. How ridiculous would it be if you didn’t make a connection with even just one of them?

Most conferences have two barriers that work against attendees networking with one another. One barrier is that people go alone, and so everyone is a stranger to everyone else. The other barrier is that if people attend a conference with familiar co-workers, they have little need of expanding their network beyond this comfort zone. Those intermissions and coffee breaks offer little incentive for professionals to get connected.

Yet network we must if we want to make the most of our conference. So how can we break the ice and get acquainted with other like-minded professionals? Perhaps come prepared with a few simple small talk questions:

  • Where are you from?
  • What do you teach?
  • Why did you come here?
  • What did you think of that session?
  • What are you hoping to get out of the conference?
  • What are you thinking of taking back to your classroom?

Simple questions like these get you connected with other professionals and help establish that common education ground you all share. From there, you can pass out your business card, exchange email addresses, connect through social media, or make plans to connect later on during the conference.

One creative idea suggested by Dorie Clark, author of “Stand Out” and professional business presenter, is to host a dinner. Contact a local restaurant and make reservations for about eight people. “Then, as I meet interesting people throughout the conference, I can invite them to join me.” This is a fun way to establish a solid connection with people you can have an authentic dialogue with over some delicious food.

I like to strike up a personal conversation with the presenters I see at conferences. I’ll ask them follow-up questions about their presentation, then exchange contact information so that when I go back to my classroom I can reach out to a trusted professional for additional insights into the content they shared.

Ongoing Learning After the Conference

So what struck your fancy at the conference? Even though there was an idea, a presentation, or a resource that really interested you, that doesn’t mean the only time you have to hear about it is limited to the conference. Make notes about which concepts you felt were the most insightful, then continue to pursue that information beyond the conference.

Remember all that networking you did at the conference? Now it’s time to put that network to work for you. Reach out to the individuals who presented thoughts or introduced you to concepts you felt were valuable. Send them an email or connect via social media and continue to tap them as a resource on the subject. See what more they know. Ask for advice. Receive their recommendations for further study. Have them introduce you to others.

Once you apply some of the ideas you’ve learned, let the new members of your network know how it’s paying off for your students. Then develop a voice of your own and begin sharing our own learnings you’re gleaning from books, professionals, and online sources.

Sharing with Colleagues

Too often, teachers will go to conferences and come back with loads of refreshing ideas … only to keep all those great ideas to themselves. Teaching is a busy profession, often with little built-in time for a thorough sharing of ideas with colleagues. What’s the plan at your school for teachers to share with others the ideas they get from conferences?

Consider these approaches:

  1. Create a shared Google Document or Spreadsheet where teachers can add the thoughts, resources, notes, and connections they’ve gathered from a conference. Then, at their leisure over the next week, colleagues can look through the additions and informally approach you with questions.
  2. When’s your next meeting? Work with your school leadership to prioritize time for teachers to share with staff during set meetings the important takeaways from their latest conference.
  3. Utilize a school #hashtag on social media where you can post pictures, links, and thoughts from your conference. Colleagues who view the #hashtag at their leisure can see what you’re experiencing and interact with you while you’re at the conference or later when they see you in person.

There are certainly many more ways than what I’ve listed above to getting the most out of your next education conference. The overall secret is a simple concept: Go to a conference with a plan. Understand that no matter how impacted you are in the moment of the conference, you need to enter with a plan for how you will capture the most ideas from the event and successfully implement them in your classroom and across your school.

So eliminate distractions, carefully listen and record, and keep the learning going long after the conference disbands. Your students will thank you!

Which idea above are you most likely to apply at your next professional development conference? How do you make the most of the education conferences you attend? Share with us in one of the comments below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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