Typically in an international school teacher’s career he/she gets a chance to attend a regional international school teacher conference as part of their PD benefit.
There is ECIS (the Educational Collaborative of International Schools), which is mostly for international schools in Europe.
There is also EARCOS (the East Asia Regional Council of Schools), AISA for those in Africa and AASSA for the international educators in South America.
But how do you best make these annual conferences very useful and worthwhile (i.e. ones people will want to attend)? At some of these annual international school teacher conferences there is a pattern of declining attendance amongst the participating educators. So, now is the time to really have a good think about what makes them relevant PD events that people want to attend.
Here are some of the possible ways to make international school teacher regional conferences successful and effective:
1. Provide more opportunities to network during the event.
One of the best places to mix and mingle with your nearby international school colleagues is definitely at an international school annual regional conference. Although the content and theme of the conference is important, one main reason people attend is to network. Conference participants need time in the schedule to mix and mingle with the other attendees. Whether it happens during scheduled break times or not, participants will appreciate a conference schedule that gives them the chance and opportunity to get acquainted with each other and meet new people in the international school community
2. Make sure the registration fee is a price that is reasonable.
Unfortunately, PD budgets at many international schools are feeling the pinch. If the conference fee is too high that will of course cause a number of teachers and administrators to not come anymore. Holding a regional conference at a school is often cheaper than renting out a conference center, so that is one way conference organizers can help keep the fees lowered. Another option is to hold the conference in a country where they costs are lower, where they don’t need to pay so much for renting out the conference center or pay the regional tax (e.g. you don’t need to charge European VAT fees if the conference is held in a non-EU country, for example).
3. Choose a desirable host location.
Let’s face it, location is everything when going on a PD opportunity. Part of attending an international school teacher regional conference is also exploring and enjoying the host city. The conference organizers themselves can facilitate a cultural excursion as part of the conference package (usually at an additional cost), or they can provide information to the participants themselves so that they can explore on their own. Not only is the city of the conference important, but also the location of the conference within the host city. It is no good being so far away from the center of the city, for example, as the majority of participants will want easy and quick access to it. Either they are staying in a hotel in the city center or they will want to go there to explore after a day’s worth of attending presentations and break-out sessions.
4. Include a delicious lunch and snacks.
After a day of workshops and keynote speakers, having a delicious lunch is just what you need. If the food is more like an after thought, then that will affect the mindset of conference participants. Having bag lunches available is not the best choice, as they tend to be served cold and participants might not think they are getting their money’s worth. Conference organizers must work with their host site and make sure they will be providing a worth-while and tasty lunch, one that they also cater to different people’s dietary needs. Keeping conference participants nourished is a great way to help keep morale up and brains focused on the new learning that is happening.
5. Incorporate a healthy balance of invited speakers and teacher presenters.
What is the best balance to have? Would you like more invited speakers when you go to a conference or would you prefer more teacher presenters? Invited speakers often present about big ideas and concepts to inspire your teaching (mostly indirectly), but teacher presenters typically present things that are more hands-on and directly linked to your classroom lessons. It is definitely good to have both the theory and the practice so that teachers stay focused and inspired during the conference.
6. Create a conference schedule is easy to follow and one that makes sense.
As you plan a conference, you want it to be the best one ever. Trying new ways of organizing each day to maximize learning can be a challenge. Making sure the schedule makes sense is paramount. It is no good creating a complicated one that leaves people frustrated. A schedule that is easy to follow, which allows participants to maximize their time at the conference, will be well-appreciated!
7. Don’t have too many new initiatives at one time.
It is good to try these new strategies, but it is also important to not go overboard and confuse conference participants. You don’t want to arrive at a workshop session and have the presenter mention their confusion about what type of session they are actually doing. Also, it is not advisable to use a lot of new ‘buzz words’ or worse, newly created words used just for that specific conference.
8. Respond back to all conference registrants in a timely manner.
From before you register to all the way up to the conference itself, it is important to keep good communication with non-registered and registered people. Getting answers to your questions helps make sure everyone is content and up-to-date with the latest information. Not getting a reply to your email can lead to confusion not just about the conference details, but about the organization itself; the company organizing the conference.
9. Help teachers create meaningful and relevant links and connections to their classrooms.
Knowing about the conference participants’ backgrounds and schools is important so that the conference can better tailor their presentations to them. Because most, if not all, conference participants are coming from a variety of international schools around the world, then the presenters should either reflect those people or have a good background knowledge of their situation. Conference participants are looking for real ways to apply new knowledge learned during presentations. Many conference presenters know this already and have designed their presentations accordingly. However, there are still a number of presenters that include very few connections and links to the classroom.
10. Provide a forum where conference attendees can discuss the conference theme and its presentations.
Sometimes 45-60 minutes isn’t enough time to really discuss and debate everything you would like to in a conference presentation. In turn, why not make sure to provide the conference participants with a forum to keep the discussion going. Maybe the conference could help to facilitate some kind of a forum where attendees to a presentation can continue their learning and questioning. In this way, people can keep the presentation topic and issues at the forefront of their thinking and not quickly forget their new learning.
11. Provide support and guidance after the conference by helping past participants in their quest to share new learning with their own school.
There are still a number of international schools that require their teachers to share their new learning at their school, when they get back after a PD event. It all sounds like a great plan, to justify the school’s money spent on a PD opportunity for their teacher. But sharing what you’ve learned with a bunch a people who weren’t there with you can be tricky. Additionally, there is hardly any real-time to do this kind of PD at your school. One solution to help facilitate this “sharing of new learning” could come from the conference itself. Maybe the conference and/or the conference presenters could plan ahead and help prepare supportive materials to help you get prepared. They could help make sure to discuss with their member school administration the idea of setting aside meeting time to allow for conference participants to share their new learning at their schools. A joint ownership of this sharing part could prove to be helpful and beneficial.
12. Choose a conference venue with some character
There is nothing worse than being in a conference site and it not inspiring you. If it is held in a school, that is one thing. But if it is at a conference center or a hotel, then it should be one that is well-situated and cosy. Boring decor and a boring layout of break-out rooms are unattractive and uninspiring. Conferences held in modern, light spaces can bring a good energy to the presentations and transition times when walking from session to session. After listening to an inspiring presentation, it is also ideal to have some hideaway places to sit down and chat with your colleagues or newly made contacts.
There is much work to do and things to think about when planning a conference. It appears that you need to balance what has worked well for the conference in the past and mix those things with a few new initiatives. International school teacher regional Conferences have been around for decades now, but are they still relevant? That is the question that these organizations need to answer. If they are still relevant, then as they plan for and organize future regional conferences, they might want to keep these 12 helpful tips in mind.