If you were paying attention to my social media postings over the past week, you know that I was at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (#OLASC) from Tuesday night until Friday. This is a huge conference, with around 5000 participants coming from all over the country, and from every sort of library (medical, public, school, archives) you might be able to think of. It includes a trade show with many authors available for signings, a huge offering of workshops in different streams, and spotlight speakers for each stream as well as keynote speakers designed to appeal to all attendees. This year’s theme was “Fearless by Design”.
I had an amazing time. I presented on Wednesday morning, on the topic of “Dishcloths, Design Thinking and Knitted QR codes”. I was thrilled to have an enthusiastic, engaged group of learners who were ready to participate in the activities I had prepared, ask some great questions, and try their hand at knitting. The photos and tweets shared by participants showed that people were having some “aha” moments, and that there was a lot of mentoring going on by some of the experienced knitters in the crowd. It was a terrific way to start the conference.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend all 3 days of the conference, and I learned an immense amount. I got to watch amazing educators share their knowledge, hear some remarkable speakers (and have my thinking really pushed by some of them) and be a “fangirl” for a favourite author or two.
Most importantly for me, I got to spend some precious time with old friends, while making connections to new ones. Relationship-building is what this kind of event is all about for me, because connecting with those people is what can help me keep that “conference high” going. It was a terrific recharge and this is a great time for it – a boost to get you through the “middle stretch”. I came home with much to think about.
And then I thought: “why don’t more people go to things like this?”, and then I had to check my privilege at the door, because I know there are a ton of reasons why people can’t/don’t attend conferences.
Economic barriers are huge – conferences are not cheap, and if you’re an out of towner, you’re paying for transportation, accommodation and meals. You also have to figure out release time, which, I learned, is WAY more of a hassle in some boards than in others. Time barriers are huge: if you have dependents of any size and shape, leaving for 3 days can be impossible, and then there’s the major chunk of time you’re going to spend prepping for a supply teacher. I hadn’t realized how much that was a factor until this self-funded leave year, when I went to a conference and it hit me that I didn’t have to worry about how thing were going in my classroom, or check for supply feedback, or adjust plans, or call a parent or…..(I know, you get it). This year, OLASC overlapped with my board’s elementary report-writing day. I would have been heading home Thursday night if I’d been teaching, or I might have decided not to go at all, in order to have time to complete reports. I think a third barrier is that people genuinely don’t know a) what conferences might be available and b) don’t know what a conference can offer them.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about teacher mental health. Partly because I’m on a year off, and I know I’m emotionally and mentally healthier without work stress; partly because of the growing concern about violent incidents in the classroom; partly because I’m part of this community, and I know we don’t do enough for ourselves. At report card time in particular, we’re often hanging on by our toenails, as we try to keep all the balls in the air and meet everybody’s expectations. I’d like to propose that time away from your work routine for some self-directed learning, even for a day, might be one possible mental health strategy.
So how do we get around those barriers?
- Check the workshops your provincial union might be offering – many that ETFO offers cost $50 and include release time, transportation, accommodation, meals and dependent care coverage (and yes, you have to apply). Summer workshops offered by OTF are multi-day events with transportation, accommodation and meal allowances, and you get your registration fee back after the workshop (yes, that’s right, it’s FREE!) and are open to all teachers in Ontario. (and they’re offered all over the province, so many people combine learning with a family holiday, if you have another adult who can help you make that happen).
- If you’re looking for a lower registration price, put in a workshop proposal – we all have great ideas to share. Many conferences offer free registration for the day you present, or a discounted conference rate, if your proposal is accepted.
- Release time an issue? Check if your union local offers funding for learning opportunities. Shoutout to KPRETFO, who will cover release time and up to $400 for accommodation and registration until that budget line is depleted. Yes, you will have to fill out an application and have your principal sign it. Worth it? I think so.
- Find out where conferences are taking place. Can you stay with someone? OLA was downtown Toronto, and my best friend lives there, close to a transit route. I just hugely lowered the cost of my event, and got to spend time with my best friend. Win-win.
- Check dates – find an event that’s happening when you feel like it might work for you to have a break.
- Ask a friend to go with you – you can go to different workshops, and share resources (and if you share accommodation, your costs go down). And you’ll always have someone to sit with at lunchtime.
- Find a conference that you really want to go to. Going to a conference won’t feed you unless it’s something you choose. Tech, subject area associations, indigenous learning, mental health, art, early learning, inquiry – it’s all out there.
Yes, it’s still a hassle to prep to be away. That’s a reality, and probably a whole blog post. You may still struggle to find child/parent care, which may mean that this post is a “not now, but someday” for you. You may be the kind of person who’s going to add to your stress by going to a conference and getting overwhelmed by all the things you “should” be doing (yes, I’ve been there). You know what you need. But maybe, just maybe, it’s worth a try for moments like this that you can hold in your heart to get you through the next rough spot.
What’s your favourite conference? How do we make going to conferences more manageable for a more diverse set of learners? How do we find opportunities for people to share what they learned, if they want to do that?
Let the sparks fly!