Finding inspiration outside the classroom

Time away from school to attend events and conferences is a big commitment – is it worth it, and how can teachers ensure that attending is beneficial? Karis Copp investigates

Attending education conferences and events is a great way to nourish your continued development by keeping up with trends, networking with colleagues and sparking fresh ideas and approaches. However, with such extensive workloads, packed schedules and budgetary restraints, it can be difficult to justify time out from day-to-day duties.

While it can certainly be a substantial undertaking to dedicate time to a conference or event, there is no doubt that they can be extremely beneficial, for your professional development as an educator, for the students and for the school itself. 

It is important to bear in mind that the teaching profession is in a constant state of flux. As time passes and society evolves, children themselves change, and the approach to educating adapts too – if institutions remain insular, they deprive themselves of the opportunity to take advantage of fresh perspectives and developments. 

There are some great education conferences and events to take advantage of in the UK, but it is important that as an attendee, you are doing as much as possible to maximise the benefits of taking the time out of school. Teachers tend to excel at networking as they naturally look for new resources and ways of keeping the subject matter stimulating. In today’s digital world, it’s even easier to make the most of your time away; many events have dedicated apps to keep visitors informed of the itinerary, and social media sites such as Twitter are a great way to connect at a conference, share knowledge and make new contacts. 

This year’s Bett

Social media also allows attendees to keep learning and stay connected even after the conference – following up with new contacts or reaching out to new speakers are great ways to ensure the event remains a part of your continued development. Providing the event organisers with your feedback is also a helpful exercise, as it allows them to plan a successful and relevant schedule at their next event.

Come to the event being very clear on what you want to look at. Do your research before you attend so that you can go to specific stalls armed with questions

Set clear goals 

Rachel Brodie, global portfolio director at education technology show Bett, explains how they make sure their conference programme strikes the right chord: “The best way to design a conference that meets the needs of attendees is by finding out what matters most to them. So we made sure to take stock of visitors’ feedback from previous shows, and implement them going forwards. This thinking underpinned everything we did at Bett in 2019.

“Every year the content team, which deals with the seminar and speakers programme, interviews around 100 teachers, leaders and influencers on the challenges they face. The knowledge and insights we capture is laid contextually over broader trends and research we undertake, as we also survey over 7,000 people a year. Together this helps to inform the direction of our annual call for content and programme development.

“We work with an advisory group to shape the programme, and this year we discussed at length how we can improve the dialogue between educators and suppliers, so they are able to ask the right questions and uncover the right solutions to their problems.”

Brodie has some expert advice for attendees on how they can maximise their time and investment at conferences, and it involves organisation and a coherent view of what you want to achieve: “Come to the event being very clear on what you want to look at. Do your research before you attend so that you can go to specific stalls armed with questions.

“Be very clear on who is attending the conference and why. Be sure about who among your staff wants to go and know what their reason for attending is. If you are planning to have purchasing and investment discussions, be clear on what your budget is before you go.

“After the event, make sure you give yourself time to sit and think about the takeaways from the conference – this should be done before getting back into the swing of school, as your time and focus will quickly be drawn away.”

Events such as those hosted by the Girls’ School Association (GSA) also actively seek attendee feedback after events, to see where they might be able to improve but also to stay abreast of current issues and challenges faced by the industry. The organisation has a year-round programme for headteachers, deputies and senior leaders, personal assistants and secretaries, as well as other roles, therefore gaining a clear view of the landscape is an ongoing process. 

Attending events is a crucial part of the professional development of a teacher, particularly early on in your career

Vivienne Durham, chief executive of GSA, explains: “At the Girls’ School Association we have worked hard to adapt our professional development. When planning an event, we think about what is to be gained through every hour of our events, and how it will be valuable for attendees, so we carefully analyse whether a residential course over two or three days is more suitable than a half-day course, and vice versa.”

“Teachers are very keen and enthusiastic recipients of new knowledge; they want to be up-to-date and au fait with trends, but they also like to be reflective and analytical – the best teaching is not complacent. A crucial point is that all schools, not least those in the independent sector, are keenly aware of financial strictures. It is necessary to be mindful of how you spend your budget, and in some schools the professional development budget is particularly tight.

“Now, more than ever, we need a focused, meaningful, professional development culture, and I believe that is even more important now than at beginning of my teaching career 30 years ago.”

Attendees at last year’s GSA conference (Gillman & Soame)

Value stays the same

Like Brodie, Durham has her own advice on how to enhance your event experience. With more than 30 years of experience in education events both as a teacher and now on the other end of the spectrum as chief executive of the GSA, her observations are definitely worth taking on board: “Attending events is a crucial part of the professional development of a teacher, particularly early on in your career. 

“Half the value is having the opportunity to listen to your colleagues and to those with more experience. I was teaching before the internet, so when I attended an event it was simply someone speaking with photocopied handouts, and that would be it. Today, we are in a different league. You’ll have huge amounts of information sent to you before the course even begins, then after the event itself there will be a great deal of following up online, more articles sent out and more social media sharing.

“Everything is more time- and cost-effective now. In one sense, it is bigger and better, but it also remains the same. The sheer joy of hearing a great idea and being inspired – that is the same 30 years ago as it is today. There is enormous value in professional conversation with colleagues and industry leaders, and in the busyness of school life, it can be hard to achieve. Therefore, the opportunity to focus on an issue and have an in-depth conversation or debate is invaluable.” 

Challenges and opportunities

Of course, leaders in the education event space are going to extol the virtues of their respective conferences and the importance of the industry’s event landscape as a whole, but they also recognise the challenges that come along with time away from the classroom. Brodie continues: “Within the UK, there is definitely a challenge for those working in education to get time off to attend events. 

“Even though attending events is one of the best ways to gain access to training and best practice, teachers are under increasing pressure with budgets – not to mention workloads – and school leaders often have to make hard decisions about who they can afford to send to conferences. Education conferences need to respond to these challenges, for example, by making sure attendance is free for educators, and that time spent there is as relevant as it can be.”

A potential solution could be the co-location of events, affording delegates the opportunity to experience and learn from a wider spectrum of experts and take less time out of day-to-day school life. The trend is already underway; this year saw the relocation of The Education Show – which features on school equipment and supplies – as it joined edtech conference Bett at the ExCeL in London. 

Brodie explains: “With the two conferences under one roof, school leaders and teachers saved valuable time, by being able to find school essentials and gain access to best practice in one place. Bett also collaborated with Learnit, a new conference for the global learning ecosystem, to ensure both events coincided. Learnit explores the current state and future of learning around the world, and was also situated in London, so that Bett and The Education Show visitors could also attend. Ultimately, it’s crucial that visitors choose the right events for them, and any event organiser needs to take this fully on board.”

This year’s Bett

Stay engaged 

Despite financial and time restrictions, attending events and conferences remains a hugely important resource in learning and development, keeping abreast of trends and finding inspiration. To ensure you are justifying the time away as well as the monetary aspect, do your research – what do you want to achieve, and how can you plan your day or days accordingly to meet your goals? Make the most of the constant connectivity of the modern era and keep interacting with the event after it has finished, be it emailing new contacts or engaging with the event and colleagues on social media. I will leave you with a final stellar piece of advice from Bett’s Rachel Brodie: “Make sure you take a portable charge block with you, so that you don’t run out of power!”

You might also like: Top five takeaways from the HMC Autumn Conference 2018


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