Here's the scenario: You receive a memo from your principal stating that you and several other teachers will be attending a teachers' conference. You are excited about attending. However, you also know that the conference site is totally unfamiliar to you, the exhibit hall will probably be large and difficult for a person who is blind to navigate independently, and much of the information presented in the various seminars will be visual. Since your school is paying your way to the conference, you owe it to it to get as much out of the event as possible. What can you do to accomplish this? Here are some ideas.
Getting the most out of any conference will require advanced preparations. Start by obtaining as much information about the conference as soon as possible so that you will have plenty of time to prepare. Your school may provide this for you. Otherwise, you will need to look for it online or request that the organization sponsoring the conference mail you the information. Obtain a conference schedule listing the available workshops and decide in advance which ones you will attend. Then, make your own conference schedule in an accessible format listing the workshops that you have chosen and their times and locations. If it is possible to earn continuing education units or academic credits for attending the conference, request the requirements and necessary forms. You might also want to ask if any of the workshop handouts could be sent to you in advance so that you can reproduce them in an accessible format before the conference. In my experience, conference handouts are seldom available in advance, but it never hurts to ask. If the exhibitor list is available in advance, peruse it carefully and make a list of the exhibits that you want to visit. If the conference is a large one, there will doubtless be lots of exhibits and you simply won't have time to visit them all. Making an exhibit list in advance will help you to maximize your time in the exhibit hall because you can plan to visit only the exhibits that pertain to what you teach and skip over the rest.
So, how will you find your way around the conference site? Here are some ways to make this task easier. First, visit the conference site in advance if possible. Learn as much as you can about the general layout of the facility. Note the location of restrooms, eating places and exits. Practice walking to the registration area, the exhibit hall and the rooms where your seminars will be held. In my experience, a little bit of advanced orientation and mobility in an unfamiliar place goes a long way. Second, if possible, take a sighted guide with you to the conference, especially if you will not have the opportunity to visit the conference site in advance. This could be your aide or another teacher who teaches the same subject as you. It should be a person who will be attending the same seminars and visiting the same exhibits as you. This way, you won't have to waste your time with exhibits and workshops which do not pertain to what you are teaching. A sighted guide can also help you go through the cafeteria line, pick up printed materials from tables and fill out any necessary print forms. If your sighted guide is one of your colleagues, it would be a nice gesture to buy his or her lunch in exchange for helping you. Even if you know your way around the facility, sometimes there is no substitute for a sighted person's help. Don't be shy about asking for it.
There are a number of other things that you can do to maximize your conference experience. First, you won't be able to remember everything that is presented; so, take copious notes in your accessible format of choice. This will help you to listen more actively and you will have these notes for future reference. Second, bring a portable voice recorder to capture whatever you miss when taking notes. Third, consider purchasing conference tapes or CD'S if they are available. If a whole set is too expensive, only buy the recordings of workshops that interest you. You may want to choose recordings of workshops that you were unable to attend, or recordings of seminars that you did attend but that you would like to have for future reference. Finally, participate in all conference activities as fully as possible. Always sit near the front so that you don't miss a thing. If they ask for volunteers to participate in learning activities and your lack of sight doesn't prohibit you from performing the task, jump into the ring and do it. Allow plenty of time to visit the exhibit hall. You will doubtless find many exciting treasures there. Also, be sure to take every opportunity to interact with teachers from other schools. You can compare notes, share stories and tips, make new friends and learn from others' experiences.
In conclusion, teachers’ conferences present excellent opportunities for you to grow as a teacher. You can learn new things, connect with colleagues from different schools and geographic locations, see what new educational materials are available and perhaps even earn continuing education credits. If you plan carefully, participate fully, and apply some of the new skills and techniques that you have learned when you return to your own classroom, your time at the conference will be well spent.
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