Each year, school districts set aside days for teacher in-service. In some cases, the topic and/or presenter is predetermined by the district. In other cases, the professional development (PD) days sneak up on the school administration, and there’s inevitably the question, “So what are we doing with our next PD day?” Most teachers I know would vote for a workday, when they can work in their classrooms independently, especially if the in-service day is close to a report card due date… which seems to be the case quite often.
While administrators want to grant the wishes of educators and give a workday, they also know that professional growth is important for innovation in our field. Educators know this too but perhaps have become jaded by historically irrelevant and/or boring PD offerings in the past.
Before the pandemic halted all in-person conferences, educators and administrators would travel near and far to attend multiday conferences to hear from innovative speakers and learn the latest research-based trends for their subject area. These conferences are slowly coming back from the shutdown, but because of the expense and days away from school, only a few teachers can attend each year.
How to Implement an In-House Conference
The idea of an in-house teacher-led mini-conference has many benefits as an alternative to off-campus educational conferences.
Mini-conferences can be organized with in-house expertise. Keep in mind there is always the cost of time—the educators who volunteer to plan and present a session are spending a valuable resource: their time. At my school, teachers are offered a gift card in appreciation for volunteering (they know this before they decide to present).
Here are some steps to get you started with planning your conference:
- Use a shared drive (Google or OneDrive). All you need is a proposal form, a shared doc, and a shared spreadsheet to track the ideas, presenters, and schedule.
- Ask teachers to consider proposing an idea for the upcoming mini-conference about two weeks before the PD day. Suggest themes such as educational technology, classroom management, SEL, self-care, or cross-curricular projects such as integrating literacy with math (this is perfect for a pair of teachers to present together).
- Some teachers may need some nudging to submit a proposal, like, “Hey Luke, have you considered submitting a proposal to present your environmental science project? I bet many of our colleagues would enjoy learning about the cool stuff your kids are doing with sustainability.” Reach out to specialists such as those from special education, learning support, and the technology department to tap into the wide variety of resources offered at your school.
- Once proposals are approved, ask presenters to fill out the shared document that is prepopulated with a blank timetable. The presenters can choose their own times and locations and provide short descriptions. Having the presenters do this step themselves saves the organizer a huge amount of time.
- About a week before the PD day, send out the session timetable with descriptions of each presentation, along with a shared editable spreadsheet to allow faculty/staff to sign up for a set number of sessions. For example, you could suggest that teachers choose at least three sessions out of the six time slots offered and designate the rest of the time as work time. As the attendees populate the spreadsheet, the presenters and attendees alike can see which sessions are filling up and which ones aren’t.
In a handful of steps and a few shared documents, the mini-conference is set up without too much of a workload on the organizer.
Additional and Lasting Benefits of In-House PD
Another great benefit of an in-house PD is that teachers get to show off the highlights that are usually hidden behind the classroom walls. As faculty and staff move from session to session, they learn more about their colleagues, their curriculum, and the ingenious, but not publicized, work that happens within the school.
Additionally, when the big, famous educational conferences do open back up, any previously hesitant teachers might feel more confident about submitting a proposal to speak at one of them. Administrators love it when one of their teachers presents at a conference because it is a source of pride for the school. It also greatly enhances the teacher’s résumé.
It’s no surprise that teachers want choice in their own professional development, and a mini-conference offers that choice. In the 2021 Edutopia article “Teachers Need More Relevant PD Options,” Kareem Farah and Robert Barnett write, “In giving teachers choice, you respect their professional judgment and time while ensuring that each teacher pursues PD that feels relevant to them.”
Be sure to follow up with the attendees after the event with another form asking for feedback. (If you need accountability for who attended which sessions, set the form to automatically collect their email address; otherwise, an anonymous survey might solicit more candid feedback.) Blogger Kim Lepre wrote about her school’s “EduCon” in 2015. She shares a summary of the feedback she received after her school’s mini-conversation. The main complaint from attendees was that there wasn’t enough time in the sessions. That’s a far cry from hearing educators plead, “Just give us a workday!”