Choosing PD Conferences: 3 Criteria

Erik EllefsenThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment


Recently, two blogs were written in regards to choosing conferences that I found helpful for Christian school leaders. CACE Fellow, Paul Neal, wrote a blog entitled Thinking about Conferences?  as he reflected on conferences he attended this past year while our friends at Sevenstar recently published a blog entitled A Guide to the Premier Events for Christian Schools this Fall.

My goal for this blog is not to critique or to offer my suggestions on which conferences to attend, but rather to provide a framework around how to select conferences on which to spend your dollars and time (both of which are in high demand). I am somewhat qualified to share these thoughts because I have co-organized 7 Innovation Gatherings, 5 Leadership Retreats, 2 Teacher Network Events, 1 Innovation Retreat, and 1 general conference since 2010. Each of these events had a different purpose, size, cost, location, and success rate. However, each time we develop a new event the questions from possible participants are always the same and can be summed up in the following: What’s in it for me?

Therefore, I’d like to propose my criteria for making the most of the opportunities available.

Criteria 1: Plan now for 2018-19 School Year and Beyond

Because of budgeting factors and getting necessary approvals I always map out my PD a year ahead. This map allows me to navigate the busyness of our profession and also prepare for changes within my school. Ultimately, this allows me to maximize my time and dollars without scrambling to find great opportunities and allows me to make adjustments when I learn of new possibilities.

Personally, I am regularly surprised that very few school leaders are projecting out and mapping their own professional development over the course of multiple years. If you can’t do it for yourself, my guess is that your PD plans for your faculty is just as incoherent and harried. Many great leaders in history have been quoted as saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Criteria 2: Expand your Network

We know from research that external PD has little impact on school improvement; therefore, any external event you spend resources on should have networking as a primary goal. Yes, you will learn and develop skills at conferences, but they are nuggets of wisdom and practice in comparison to the relationships you will develop. Over the years, I have discovered that the biggest professional development occurs over late night drinks, conversations on the pool deck, or dinner gatherings.

Hence, choose conferences where you will have ample opportunity to spend time with old friends, develop new relationships, and grow your network to take back to school with you. Lastly, if you truly want to spend a larger portion of your budget on PD that seriously impacts school quality then seek the best professionals possible by getting out to conferences where their expertise is on display. Likewise, don’t underestimate the impact that becoming a regular attendee can have on your professional development and impact within an organization.

Criteria 3: Make Education Your Focus

My primary criticism of Christian school conferences is that they are rarely focused on the best in Education; rather, they tend to be focused on cultural laments or unsubstantiated approaches to learning or school improvement. I have committed myself to invest in, attend, and present at conferences where teaching, learning, and school improvement are valued for the general good of our students, communities, churches, and world.

This was a more recent commitment on my part as I attended a few larger conferences that had primarily political and culture warriors as keynote speakers with a complete lack of exceptional educators on the docket. My charge to you is simple, if there is a lack of focus on the development of you as a professional within our profession then save your money and time.

Conclusion and Suggestion:

According to research and experience, school leadership is lonely and isolating; therefore, get out, learn, immerse yourself in our profession, and grow your network of support to take back with you to your school. I have plenty of other thoughts in regards to M.Ed. and Ed.D. programs and the proliferation of paper mills that have no impact on leadership development, but I’ll save that for another blog.

My final suggestion, seek innovative conferences that place a high value on interaction with exceptional experts, innovators, and educators. I suppose it should give you a taste of what you are trying to do within your school as you create a dynamic learning organization.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

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