In these days of tight budgets in the FE sector, attending an external conference can be seen as a luxury; nice to have but not essential. So, what is a conference for and what makes it worth attending?
I have been a teacher, trainer and coach in FE for twenty-five years and been a regular attendee and presenter at conferences. Now I am a consultant, coach and trainer and split my time between presenting to share practice and attending for my own developmental purposes. I did a bit of both at the Optimus Education FE & Skills annual conference on November 27th 2014 and found these benefits:
- Great keynote speakers who brought insightful overviews of sector issues and gave some useful, practical approaches for tackling them. This positive, constructive approach can be missing in some events, which can dwell too much on the problems we are facing in the FE sector without providing avenues to explore, options for action. I found the speakers’ passion for improving the learners’ experience an inspiring thing to see and this reminded me of the importance of bringing that energy and those values to the role of presenter. Their drive and enthusiasm was a shot in the arm in a busy term and I think that boost helps us to keep making the effort needed to enhance learning and deal with the challenging current context in the sector. Thanks to Louise Taylor for inspiring me to keep working on long-term, sustainable change in college cultures and to Sue Lownsborough, for providing such a wealth of practical nuggets for approaching the whole organization embedding of English and Maths.
- Time to network with colleagues, both known and unknown and reflect together on our context, our bright spots of things that are working and our ongoing challenges. All over the conference centre I could hear conversations involving the exchange of confidences and tips, with business cards being swapped for future contact. A conference is a great chance to re-connect with people plus broaden contact networks, to enrich our thinking and share our practices more broadly.
- Space to stand back and think about what we are doing in our everyday roles. With the pressure and speed of activity in the sector, I think this is a very valuable thing. It is a chance to take stock a little, to self-assess against what others are doing, to consider what to take back and explore in our own context. It is about having a little time to look beyond our institution walls, reach out and connect with our wider sector. Most of my career has been spent inside individual institutions and now that I work cross-sector, I see how inward looking some individual colleges can become and how that can constrain innovation and improvement work. A little time to connect outside can be a very positive thing, bringing fresh ideas into play.
- Practical tips, approaches and resources to take away and explore. At this conference, I gained some very useful questions for reflecting on how English is embedded in a college, a new model for talking about culture change, some great tips for managing performance positively; all of these will feed into and enrich my own practice and work with others. There can be a ripple effect to attending a conference, I think.
- The chance to be a learner. Maybe for me this is the biggest benefit, as it reminds me of so many things and causes me to question and challenge my own practice as a teacher/ trainer and presenter. At this conference I attended a great workshop with Andry Anastasiou from Team Training. She shared a wealth of experience in positive performance management techniques though a series of short and well-focused activities. It made me realise how much you can gain in a brief session, if the trainer is skilled, thoughtful and insightful. As participants, we had a chance to think individually, to share with a partner and to engage with the trainer as well as listen to her. The balance and pacing of those different elements was a pleasure to experience. My own preference is for half-day or full day workshops as I love the richness, depth and variety that can be gained from those, but my time with Andry made me re-evaluate what can be achieved in a one-hour session and how beneficial that can be for the attendee. I learnt a lot from both the content and the process of this session and that is a valuable thing to take forward into my work.
Another interesting experience was to sit in a lecture-style session on graded lesson observations with Dr Matt O’Leary, from CRADLE, University of Wolverhampton and notice how much I absorbed, while also reflecting on the points made. Most of the lessons I see in FE now involve a great deal of active learning and group activity and that often works really well for learners. At Matt’s session I was reminded that a clear, well-structured and interesting lecture/presentation, delivered with passion and focus, can be a very thought-provoking thing. It has made me think about incorporating a little more of that style into my own delivery, which tends to be more facilitative and coaching-led.
Thanks to Optimus Education for organising such a high-quality event and to all the speakers for the things I have taken away to ponder and use. It can be worth spending the time and money on a well-chosen conference, I think.