Should I present at a conference?

DSC02156My colleagues and I recently attended an NSTA conference. On the way home as we discussed what we learned, they suggested I share some of the successful activities I do in the classroom, but I’m not sure that others would be interested. Plus, I’d be really nervous doing a presentation, and I’m not sure how to go about submitting a proposal. Can you talk me into this? —J., California

 I think your colleagues have done a good job to get you to consider presenting, since you’re asking me about it! So I’ll add to the pep talk based on my experience.

Even though teachers spend all day every day in front of students, we get nervous in front of other adults. This is normal. But I’ve found most conference participants are attentive and courteous to the presenters.

Teachers like to hear about practical, classroom-tested activities and strategies. They like to see examples of student projects and ideas they can use without special funding or complicated materials. And they really like hearing from colleagues who “walk the walk.” It sounds like you have ideas that would be worth sharing.

If the topic you choose is specific to your school, try to show how it could be adapted to other schools, grade levels, or geographic regions. Think about what format would work best for you: lecture, discussion, hands-on activities, demonstrations, or a combination of these.

Interacting with others is an important part of conferences, so I often include activities that foster discussion among participants, such as a bell-ringer question, a think-pair-share, or a gallery walk following a small group discussion. Doing an activity and then debriefing on the science or pedagogy behind it can help people develop the confidence to implement it themselves. Allow enough time for questions or comments during the presentation or at the end.

Conference proposals are typically due well before the conference to provide the organizers with time to select and schedule the sessions. See the guidelines and deadlines at Presenting at NSTA Conferences. Conferences usually receive more proposals than there are time slots, so follow the guidelines to improve your chances of being selected. Choose a topic that relates to the conference theme and the Next Generation Science Standards, if applicable.

Rather than using reams of paper handouts, many presenters share a brief outline and direct participants to a website with other resources. If you do need large handouts or materials for a hands-on activity, consider shipping them to your hotel ahead of time if you’re getting to the conference by plane or train. Use a wheeled suitcase to transport materials to and from the conference venue.

If you co-present with colleagues (and it sounds like you have colleagues who could be recruited), determine who will do each part and how to transition between presenters. Before the conference, do a dress rehearsal to finalize the time and flow of the presentation. Perhaps you could do this at a faculty or department meeting to get feedback from other teachers. Think of it as a formative assessment!

Most organizations do not compensate presenters and require conference registration. Be sure you and your co-presenters can get release time for the conference and ask if the school can assist with expenses.

Presenting at a conference is a professional accomplishment and a form of professional development. In addition to adding the conference to your vita, prepare a brief summary to share with your school administrators or for the school newsletter and ask about getting professional education credit for your experience.

Don’t give up if your proposal is not accepted. (I have a folder full of “we’re sorry” notes). It’s a challenge for the program committee to review and prioritize thousands of proposals. You can revise the proposal and resubmit at a later time or to a different conference.

My worst nightmare came true one year when I was assigned a Sunday morning slot at an NSTA conference (at least I was not in the same time slot as Bill Nye!). I worried if anyone would come. My nerves calmed when I realized there was a nice-sized group. In fact, I have yet to attend a Sunday session at an NSTA conference that was not well-attended. The preparation and anxiety were all worth it when several participants came up afterwards to say, “This is exactly what I need!

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