Maximizing a Conference Going Experience (ASCA 2014)

ASCA 2014 has kicked off here in Orlando, Florida and once again I am reminded why it is so important that as professional educators we continue to seek out professional development. ASCA is the American School Counselor Association but many of the lessons and sessions I’ll be attending over the next few days can apply to all areas of education, not just the counselor’s office.

Like many conferences, ASCA 2014 is a combination of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, vendors and networking. Upon glancing at the program guide its easy to be overwhelmed by the offerings of a national conference. So how do you maximize your professional development experience?

A successful conference experience begins much like any other successful experience, with preparation. Long before you arrive at the conference, even prior to signing up to attend, you need to decide what you are looking to get out of the conference. At ASCA 2014 there are tracks for elementary, middle and high school counselors. There are sessions targeted towards college and career readiness, social emotional learning, academic achievement, and counselor leadership.

At this point in my career I am looking to take the next step into a formal leadership position, whether that be as a department chair or assistant principal. With that in mind, I planned my conference going experience off of the idea that my goal was to gain skills, resources and connections to take that next step. You may decide that you want to target a specific need of your school or a specific area of growth you need to address. What ever you decide, make sure you head into the conference with the end in mind.

After you’ve set a goal for yourself and registered for your conference, take a through look the conference schedule. Most conferences will set their schedule several weeks if not months ahead of time. This will allow you to look over the presenters and abstracts to decide which sessions best align with your goals. It’s a good idea to have your sessions planned out. Conferences can often be overwhelming and its easy to decide not to attend a breakout session because you’re tired. Its also easy to be swayed by colleagues or other attendees, who may have other goals than you. By committing to a schedule you are committing to your goal and your specific professional development need.

When you are in each session, don’t forget to take notes and grab copies of handouts. My first time attending a major conference I was so impressed by the speakers. They were polished, informative and interactive, and today I can’t remember what the majority of them spoke about. I had failed to take notes or save their handouts. Attending a conference can provide short term motivation, but to bring lasting impact or change you need to remember the content that was delivered. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing about a great program that you want to bring back to your school only to forget the details by the time you return to work.

As you take notes, be sure to keep yourself organized. I lead an organizational skills group for my students who have a difficult time staying organized. At a conference it’s my turn to put into practice the skills I teach my students. Its very easy to grab flyers and business cards as you walk through the exhibit hall, but those resources are only valuable if you know how to access them in the future. Keep a folder or portfolio with you to slide resources in as you collect them. At the end of each day sort through what you’ve collected and organize it in a manner that makes sense to you and is useable for future reference.

So far we’ve touched on the content of the conference, but so much of a successful conference experience is the networking opportunities and connection you can make with other people with the same career focus. Take advantage of meeting new people, sitting with different people at meals, attend the social gatherings and non-content functions. I’ve found that what often most inspires me isn’t a keynote speaker but another conference attendee who loves their job. Passion is contagious and at a conferences its easy to catch.

Finally, upon returning home make sure to take time to reflect. Knowledge is power but action is even more powerful. Reflect on the highlights of the conference sessions. Share your experiences with others in your building. You may have been the only one from your school to attend, but that doesn’t have to mean you are the only one who benefits from the conference.

If you follow these tips, I know you’ll have a successful conference going experience. Stay tuned this week as I blog about my experience at ASCA 2014, culminating with my very first presentation at the national level.




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