The political parties’ conference season may be over, but it should always be conference season for teachers, argues Kristy Turner 

Once upon a time, continuing professional development (CPD) meant attending a course hosted by an external provider. You chose the topic you needed training on, something subject specific, a demonstration for advanced chemistry maybe or perhaps something to help your career progression like a middle leaders course. Then you went on a charm offensive to persuade your school to pay for your training and the cover for your day out of the classroom, before you skipped off for a day in a nice hotel or at a university campus.

Once upon a time, continuing professional development (CPD) meant attending a course hosted by an external provider. You chose the topic you needed training on, something subject specific, a demonstration for advanced chemistry maybe or perhaps something to help your career progression like a middle leaders course. Then you went on a charm offensive to persuade your school to pay for your training and the cover for your day out of the classroom (find out how: rsc.li/2PqeaMR), before you skipped off for a day in a nice hotel or at a university campus.

Teachers in a lecture theatre at an education conference

Source: Jeannette Rische / EyeEm / Getty Images

Those days are long behind us, the CPD budget being one of the first things cut in times of austerity. Most CPD is now provided internally. There is plenty of online and study type CPD that can be done in your own time. But nothing beats a face-to-face learning experience and one type of CPD activity has seen growth in recent years: the education conference. In my career I have attended quite a few conferences, usually two or three a year. The first conference I attended was the Association for Science Education annual conference in 2007 when I was an NQT and the local authority science advisor put on a minibus trip. Her guidance at that point in my career was especially important. More recently I tend to be at conferences because I am also presenting.

We all go to conferences for different reasons, because we feel we should go to them, because we’re following the crowd (which might explain the recent growth in education conferences). What, though, can conferences bring to a teacher’s CPD portfolio and which bits are best skipped?

Knowing the content, knowing the theme

Theme and content

Perhaps the first thought in choosing a conference to attend is the theme and content, there is a huge variety in offerings. A key advantage of conferences is the opportunity to personalise your own learning, choosing sessions to fit your own interests and ambitions. Generally there are big name keynote speakers designed to draw in the crowds, but these are supplemented by parallel sessions which diversify the offering. Don’t assume that because a keynote speaker has been invited and is in that position in the programme their content is more valuable than others’. Cast a critical eye over the whole conference programme. If you are lucky enough to go to a conference with someone else from your school or a friend, you will be able to get the benefit of lots of different sessions.

Take a chance on me

Challenge your thinking

In any conference programme there will be time slots when there won’t be anything that you fancy attending. Sometimes it is worth taking a chance on a session that didn’t initially appeal; you may serendipitously find a golden session. It is easy to stick to your comfort zone but conferences can be a great opportunity to challenge your own thinking. There is no shame in sitting out a session if you need to though, a little reflection time away from the transmission of new ideas can be an essential part of making the most of a conference programme. Our time is precious, so don’t waste it on sessions that aren’t valuable.

Voulez-vous conference avec moi?

Get out of the bubble

Conferences are usually big events and they will be packed full of like-minded people. Schools can be very insular places so it is good to get out of the bubble and get some perspective on your interests. If you are active on Twitter you may be able to make contact with delegates before you arrive, which can certainly reduce those moments when you’re standing by the coffee hoping someone will talk to you. Attending a conference by yourself can be intimidating, especially if it seems lots of other attendees know each other. It is worth perfecting your ‘hairdresser talk’ and having a few generic conversation starters; ‘have you travelled far?’ is always a good start. Seasoned conference goers, try to branch out and talk to the new faces around you, and also encourage new colleagues to try out a conference. We were all new once. One of my most rewarding experiences was attending a researchED conference with a friend who was an NQT and teaching in a very different school to mine. It encouraged me to see a lot of the conference content with fresh eyes.

One of us

Meet new people

Networking seems to be a dirty word in education, but it doesn’t have to be negative. A network is simply a group of people with similar interests and networking should be mutually beneficial rather than a one-sided effort. Conference contacts have later become collaborators for me and I have both provided advice to and asked advice of those I have met at conferences. Many have gone on to become friends and I look forward to our annual conference get-togethers as much for the social aspect as for the content.

Conferences have the potential to be a powerful addition to any teacher’s CPD portfolio. They certainly have been a key aspect of mine.

Kristy Turner is a school teacher fellow at University of Manchester/Bolton School, UK

What was the last conference you attended? What was the most useful thing you took away from it? Tell us in the comments below.