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Annual teacher conference rejuvenates and inspires

by Grant Frost

Annual teacher conference rejuvenates and inspires

This past Friday, thousands of teachers from all over Nova Scotia gathered in dozens of locations to attend this year’s annual NSTU October conference.

For those of you who may not know, this annual gathering is a professional development day organized by teachers, for teachers. It is one of the few such days for which the mandate of what is to be covered is not set by either the school boards or the DoEECD, and teachers have a wide variety of choice in what sessions they can attend.

Much has been made of late about such days. There are some in this province who have suggested that all such events should be removed from the school calendar year and relegated the summer months, a move that would certainly please childcare hindered parents. Folks who support this idea hint at lost contact time leading to falling test scores, and promote a decidedly neo-liberal model of “On your time, on your dime” professional development for teachers. They also refer to those ever-present and ephemeral “some teachers” who, they suggest, find questionable value in such days.

However, there are a great many teachers who believe the day not only holds value, but is indeed invaluable for both the individual teacher and the profession itself.

This past Friday’s provincial professional development day started for teachers David Zinck and John Hendsbee at about 7:00 amon Friday morning. As conference co-chairs, they needed to arrive at Dartmouth High School well before the 8:30 registration to put the final touches on this year’s Educational Drama Association of Nova Scotia’s (EDANS) annual October conference. For Zinck and Hendsbee, the day represented the culmination of dozens of volunteer hours put in during the past year to make the day a reality.

“For me,” said Zinck, a department head and drama teacher at Dartmouth High School “I hope teachers get something out of today that they can immediately use in their classroom.”

Hendsbee, a drama teacher from Dalbrae academy in Cape Breton said, “…I like (offering) the opportunity to learn about the craft of teaching. So often, the PD we receive is not focused on the actual craft”

The EDANS conference is similar, (organizationally, at least,) to many of the other conferences that occurred on Friday, organized by teacher volunteers from the various teacher professional associations. Zinck and Hendsbee spent the year arranging the venue, booking session leaders, and, of surprising importance, arranging for food.

Thoughts about the many unseen challenges faced by those arranging this day were echoed by Andrew Gosney, co-chair of the Nova Scotia School Counsellors Association (NSSCA) conference, held this year at the World Trade and Convention Center. Gosney spoke not only of preparing for the conference, but of how busy the day itself can be for the organizing committee.

“It is all the ‘in the moment’ things that can be a challenge. Looking after the presenters, ensuring they have what they need. You also want to ensure that you have provide an opportunity for teachers to learn.”

Gosney spoke of how collaboration was one of the key elements of this year’s NSSCA conference, which included speakers such as well-known educational researcher Dr. Kimberly MacLeod, and Dr. John LeBlanc, a leading authority on bullying in schools and social and emotional learning.

When asked what it was that inspired teachers to volunteer so much time to an event like this, Gosney said “We care about and want to promote the profession. We want to offer quality professional development. October Conference provides guidance for the profession moving forward.”

Back at DHS, I had a chance to speak with a few of the attendees prior to the start of the day. One, a grade four teacher, was volunteering to run this year’s musical for his elementary school, and was looking for some ideas to help get the students to speak on stage. Another teacher, again from grade four, spoke of how a recently mandated “movement break” for kids in elementary had not been accompanied by sufficient teacher training. She was hoping to pick up some good ideas to get the kids moving in a creative and fun way. She was also looking forward to a day of not having to focus so much on literacy and math, topics which seem to dominate many top down professional development offerings.

Several teachers also spoke about how the timing of the October conference worked so well for them. “I know what I have”, one teacher offered, “I know the kids now, and know what I can do with them. I don’t like it when everything is piled on at the beginning of the year.”

For Aren Morris, a drama teacher from metro, the day was all about reaffirmation. “I leave here feeling rejuvenated and inspired. Teachers get to be the student and reminded about what it feels like to be a learner and take a risk.”

Teacher professional development is one of those educational hot button issues that seem to come around every few years and, much like snow days and summers “off”, there is a great deal of negative press that surrounds them. Parents, somewhat understandably, often dislike the extra inconvenience and expense of childcare. Critics, particularly those who purport to understand the system, expound  a general disgruntlement that these days occur during the school year. Finally, our current Minister of Education, with  her leanings towards getting this training done in the summer, emotes a lack of understanding the importance this day has for many educators.

As a teacher who has both attended and organized the October Conference day, the professional value, to me, is clear. I am also a parent, however, who had to shell out extra money on Friday for childcare. But if on Monday, my daughter’s teacher came back to her classroom with some new ideas for teaching, feeling rejuvenated, inspired and reaffirmed, I will consider that money very well spent indeed.

As I left Dartmouth High School at around 3:45pm,  Zinck, Hendsbee and a few other EDANS executive members were dutifully poring over the comment forms and already making plans for improving the conference for 2016. In front of them lay a year of meetings, planning sessions, phone calls and e-mails. All volunteer, all to help teachers improve the practice of teaching and, ultimately, improve the education system in the Province.

Improvement designed by teachers, for teachers, with an intimate understanding of the challenges of today’s classroom and the realities facing today’s educators.

Would that all suggestions for educational improvement were viewed through such a lens.

Grant Frost is a teacher who blogs at FrostedEducation.com

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