Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dear Conference Organizer

My name is Julie. I am a classroom teacher who teaches ELA to amazing sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In case you're wondering, yes, that's a pubic school with a very diverse population. I believe that growing professionally is a key component in sharpening my teaching practice and providing my students with the best possible learning opportunities. One of the strongest ways I have found to improve is by attending conferences both big and small. However, over the last couple of years, I have noticed a growing trend in major conferences which I (as a practicing classroom teacher) find disturbing.

The most powerful learning, and subsequent growth, I have had has come from two sources, my students and other classroom teachers. For years I have believed that there was a voice missing from these conferences...the voice of students. We are growing, learning, and connecting with one another at these professional learning events in order to become better for our students. Has anyone ever stopped and wondered why we aren't including students in the conversations at these events? I'm not talking about having a student group perform or do introductions of major speakers (which I do enjoy), but actually share their ideas, ask questions, and answer our questions. At these conferences, all of our professional learning should focused on them as we reshape our thinking and evolve our practice. Yet I believe that when we exclude them from the actual conversation, we are unintentionally forcing our beliefs on them instead of using their feedback, coupled with our knowledge of sound education practice as the perfect marriage to facilitate the best learning opportunities for them.

Over the years, I have heard many claim that students aren't savvy or educated enough to join these conversations. I strongly disagree with this premise. For over twelve years, my students have presented at conferences and (recently) at Edcamps. They have conducted webinars, Skyped, and created resources for faculties all over the world. They WANT to have a voice. They NEED to have a voice. Education isn't something that should be done to them. I hear many educators talking about how we as educators want a seat at the table. What I believe so many of us are missing is that the table actually belongs to our students....and we are relegating them to "kids table" away from the "adult' conversation. If we truly want to stay relevant in today's fast -paced world, we must learn along side our students and to acknowledge that their voice has value to our learning.

Another crucial component of my professional growth is learning from my colleagues. As a classroom teacher, I want to learn from other classroom teachers. I want to gain the benefit of their experience, both formally in sessions and informally through conversations. I know there is something to be said for providing conference participants inspiration from celebrities. Henry Winkler's story of his struggle with learning disabilities helped me to re-evaluate how I was providing support and encouragement to my struggling readers and writers. However, as a veteran teacher who is a lifelong learner, I find it a bit insulting to have a celebrity (who is not an educator) tell classroom teachers how we should be teaching our students. Conference Organizers, I don't know if you believe that those big names bring status to your organization or there is a reason that I am missing, but as an avid conference participant, I rarely leave those sessions (no matter how entertaining) with anything of value that I can take back to my students. [An example done right: AMLE did a fantastic job of having keynotes who were practicing educators who not only inspired and entertained but delivered fantastic practical applications we could take back to our schools.]

Also, in these conference communities you usually see session spotlights on consultants, non-profit groups, and one-time educational events that are not replicable in other places. There is a place for these at conferences, but not to the detriment of teachers. When it's hard to find sessions on your schedule led by classroom practitioners, your opinion of classroom teachers is broadcast load and clear. I can't help but wonder if this is part of the reason why teachers tend to put the word "just" in front of teacher when describing themselves. When classroom teachers aren't spotlighted, showcased, or promoted, it may inadvertently be sending the message that classroom teachers who (often on their own dime) travel far distances to share their students' stories. They have direct contact with students every single day. They know what works, what doesn't, and how to overcome obstacles. For those of us in the trenches with them, that is the true reason why we are taking precious time away from our own students and spending our own money to travel to your event.

I have to lead my students by example. I know that someone needs to speak up or nothing will ever change...and today is my day to speak up. I realize that I am opening myself up for debate and criticism, but I hope that it prompts some introspection and thought for the future. If anyone would like to discuss this further, I am open to new ideas, dialogues, and perspectives.

Yours truly,
A classroom teacher

P.S. I am not writing about one specific conference, but trends that I have seen emerging. As someone who has organized many professional learning events, I truly value the hard work it takes to plan and implement these huge events that provide teachers a place to meet, connect, and build relationships. Thanks for all that you do.