I’m excited to introduce my very first guest blogger, Kathy Biernat of Zanilu Educational Services, LLC! Kathy recently attended the NSTA conference in Atlanta. Her post is timely because I’ve seen many questions on social media lately asking “Is attending the NSTA worth it”? Kathy’s answer is a resounding YES! Read her story below!
Recharge, Learn, and Connect:
Why Attending a Professional Conference is So Important
by Kathy Biernat
As I wait in the airport for my (delayed) flight home, I have plenty of time to reflect on the National Science Teaching Association’s (NSTA) annual conference I just attended in Atlanta. It was the 8th NSTA national conference I’ve attended since 2014 – considering there were only 9 national conferences during that time, I feel pretty good about that!
On the other hand, many teachers think I’m crazy (especially since all but 1 of those conferences came out of my own pocket). Still, I highly encourage all teachers to find the time (and the resources) to travel to a conference. Now, more than ever, we need to recharge, learn and connect.
Conferences are a source of motivation and inspiration. They help teachers stay passionate about their work, renew their commitment to their students, and bring new energy and enthusiasm to their classrooms. Hearing from others who face similar challenges can invigorate you. You are not alone! Often teachers don’t know who to ask or have anyone they can network with. I talked at length with a new teacher who felt alone- despite having other teachers in her same building who taught science. She was intimidated and uncomfortable asking them questions like, “How much time should this lab take?” or “Where can I get the money to pay for the sensors I’d like to have in my room?”. I loved sharing resources for how to find grants with her and giving her tips about how to prepare the grants.
Professional development conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to learn about the latest research in their field. This knowledge can be applied in the classroom to enhance teaching practices and improve student learning outcomes. I love teaching about astronomy, and not only were there multiple booths in the exhibit hall with free resources, but also sessions taught by other teachers and experts in the field. (I loved the one about astrophotography! ) The keynote speaker was an astronaut! Conferences not only help you to stay up-to-date on the latest teaching methods and materials but can also help you identify new areas of interest to explore in your own teaching. I’ve never been that interested in geology myself, but found so many resources that I can’t wait to use with students! Plus, I’ve presented over four dozen times at the conferences- each time is a chance for me to share my experiences in the classroom. While that first presentation was scary, teachers are a kind audience! Presenting forces me to really look at what I’ve done, and sharing with others is very rewarding. What’s better than someone saying, “I used your lesson and it was great!”?
My favorite part, though, is reconnecting with friends and making new friendships. Conferences provide an opportunity for science teachers to meet and network with other teachers, experts, and researchers in their field. These interactions can lead to collaborations, sharing of ideas, and opportunities to learn from others. For example, a dozen years ago, I attended a fabulous professional development week in California with ten other teachers. One of them became a dear friend and every year at NSTA, we meet and share a room and present together. This year, 4 of the ten were together at the conference – what a gift! Every day, I would run into someone I knew from a professional development workshop, from participating as a member of their organization, from receiving a teaching award or a grant from them, to having met them at an earlier conference. So many hugs!
While networking is the biggest benefit of attending a conference, as these teachers inspire and challenge me, it can be intimidating and overwhelming for a first-timer, especially if you attend the conference alone. Take it slow – map out the sessions you want to attend, schedule time for the exhibit hall (and then double that time, you’ll need it) and don’t be afraid to approach another teacher at a session or even in the elevator. I met two teachers at the airport and we shared an Uber to the hotel. It isn’t easy to travel away from home and immerse yourself into a group of people you have never met, but you will grow from the experience.
From attending conferences and other professional development workshops, I have gained an invaluable group of colleagues, mentors and friends. I have friends across the globe with whom I have shared rooms, meals, laughs and tears. I have friends who help when I am stuck, offer suggestions and criticisms and cheer me on. These are people who may teach in a different town or part of the world, but who “get” what it is like to teach science.
We all have responsibilities to our students and our schools, but we must not ignore the responsibility we have to ourselves to continue to grow. I love the Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”. Keep your fires burning and you will find you have stoked your students’ fires as well.
Kathy Biernat taught Science for grades 5-8 for 16 years and currently supports teachers in the classroom as an instructional coach. She also writes curricula for several companies and enjoys being able to write lessons that teachers can use easily and effectively in their classrooms. She holds a master’s degree in education and has been named Teacher of the Year for five different national organizations. When not working with teachers, she and her husband enjoy traveling, boating, and their new granddaughter.
Learn more about Kathy’s work at Zanilu.org.