Planning a Conference 1: Defining Your Vision

In this series of blogposts, I will be reflecting on how I (and others) are organising a Teaching and Learning conference at Framwellgate School Durham. For context, the topic of the conference is the teaching of reading at secondary level, and rather than being focussed on English, it is an inter-disciplinary event. If you want to know more about it, follow the twitter handle @FSDconferences.

I am planning to write 7 posts which take you through the creation of the event, from the first tentative discussion to evaluation and next steps. If you are thinking of organising your own event, hopefully you will find it useful to peek behind the scenes to see the processes I have gone through.

So, to start at the beginning: why run a conference at all?

Since becoming a teacher in Durham in 2016, I have often been tempted by adverts to attend CPD sessions or conferences where I could not only hear new ideas about how to improve my teaching and my students’ experiences, but also where I could be inspired by conversations with fellow-teachers. I find that there is nothing as energising as being in a room with like-minded people and, in my brief academic career, I often left such events with pages of notes and my mind on fire with ideas.

Yet, after qualifying it turned out that the reality was that there were few opportunities to attend such events in my local area, and that train tickets to conferences further afield are rather expensive. Going to a one day conference would mean travelling the night before, staying in a cheap hotel most likely far away from the actual venue, and then rushing to catch the train again for the long journey back up north. This could mean that a single conference could cost at least a couple of hundred pounds to attend. For those with caring responsibilities, the travel time and need to stay elsewhere is even more prohibitive.

A parallel issue is that of self-image or self-esteem: if there are few conferences in a particular geographical area, it starts to feel forgotten about, a backwater of pedagogical improvement. And yet, Durham is anything but: in fact, every day I see my talented colleagues in my own school and elsewhere succeeding with young people in the most difficult of circumstances. These teachers have a wealth of experience and knowledge which, given a platform for sharing, would be of inestimable value to others.

So a conference based in Durham would have two benefits. First, it would provide a local opportunity to learn, share knowledge, and feel motivated. Second, it would provide a small challenge to the atomised nature of teaching and learning in the north-east.

Defining the scope of the conference

So my vision is to provide a high-quality and inspirational teaching and learning conference in the north-east.

As I have never organised a project quite like this from scratch, this aim might seem insurmountable, but the work of those at LitDrive and TeachMeet Icons shows that when the profession works together, such ventures can succeed in the most fruitful and beneficial ways. I am extremely lucky that my headteacher was thinking along the same lines as me, and that he and the staff at Fram are committed to making the conference work. I am also fortunate to have made many friends on twitter over the past year, and these teachers are willing to give up their time in pursuit of the same vision. If you have an idea and want to get started, I would recommend first clarifying your aims to yourself, and then – when you are confident that you can communicate these clearly – seeking the support of those around you.

All of my ideas mean that it would be very easy for the scope of the conference to become unmanageable. And so I have had to ask myself:

  • How much time do I have?
  • Who can help me, and how much time do they have?
  • What resources (financial and other) do I have access to?
  • What scale of event would be manageable for a small team who are doing this on top of their day job?
  • What are my priorities for the event?

It’s important to balance ambition with realism, and Covid has done some of that for me. Our venue has a limit of 80 people in the main hall, and that seems to be a reasonable number of delegates for the first conference. I have allowed myself 6 months for organisation, and whilst this is a bit tight, it is manageable because of the goodwill of those I am working with. The one priority for me is the quality of the presentations, and recruiting speakers is the topic of the next blogpost in this series.

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