Professional Development

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Make the Most of a Conference

When promotional materials for local or national conferences come across your desk, do you get excited about the opportunities, or do you feel overwhelmed about which to choose?

Here are several ways you can grow as a professional, develop your staff, and obtain useful takeaways—in short, get the most "bang for your buck."

Let's start with planning, as it's essential! Plan in advance how many conferences per year the organization should attend, reference your budget to determine how many staff members could attend each conference, and develop a selection process to determine who attends. You might create a drawing with the employees' names. Drawing qualifications could include:

Performance. Employees must be in good standing.
Longevity. Employees must be employed for one year or longer.
Obligation. Employees must be committed to the company for six to 12 months after attending a national conference.

Consider nominating an emerging frontline staff member to gain his or her perspective on content, contribute to creating change, and become inspired by the afterschool field career path.

If multiple staff members attend the same conference, consider planning meetings to review the workshop choices. Each attendee could indicate first and second choices for workshop sessions. To get the most bang for the company's buck, assign an array of diverse trainings—although there are times when it's more effective to send several employees to one training to create a brainstorming opportunity on a critical topic.

Take advantage of ways attendees could grow professionally. Conferences give staff the opportunity to network with colleagues from other organizations, gain knowledge from experts and veterans in the field, share ideas, attend workshops relevant to their interest, and—most important—have scheduled time to reflect on ways to improve their program. Encourage your staff to consider presenting at a conference, for a unique professional experience. NAA provides many ways attendees could get involved, such as presenting a 90-minute workshop session, hosting a poster session to showcase exceptional work from your organization, or presenting a five-minute ignite session on an emerging topic. These opportunities will not only expand your experience and skills, but will reward your efforts with discounted registration rates! Consider recruiting a co-presenter for your first workshop session until you feel more comfortable. Seize the opportunity: You will not regret it!

During sessions, staff members could use a "conference template" to organize their thoughts. This should include sections for documenting the session title and presenter contact information; notes; a to-do list of ideas; and ideas gathered from the session that would benefit other departments within the organization. A template provides a clear structure for every attendee to use, to retain information for reflection and implementation meetings.

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Let's also talk about making sure you have useful takeaways. During sessions, take advantage of the outstanding afterschool professionals you'll encounter by preparing two or three focus questions. Example: If you're interested in offering recruiting bonuses to staff members—but have been on the fence about the pros and cons—network with new colleagues about their experience with bonuses. This will spark a discussion furnishing you with insight and advice from multiple people to determine what is best for your program. As they say, "Why reinvent the wheel?" Learn from the trials and errors of others to gather best practice tips.

As the conference comes to an end, develop a list of ideas you want to implement or share. Plan a quick reflection meeting with all attendees instantly upon return, to discuss ideas and determine which thoughts could be implemented into the program or used for future reference. Every attendee could choose at least two workshops they felt were most informative, or that ignited a new concept they want to share with colleagues. Have staff members (or you) share these conference takeaways for fifteen minutes during a department meeting. If multiple staff attended the conference, spread the fifteen-minute discussions across several meetings. In my experience, this gives staff the opportunity to experience presenting to their peers, while taking responsibility for assisting in implementing new ideas. This also allows the company to leverage their funds by sending only a couple of staff to a conference, who could then share new strategies and information with everyone through summary discussions.

Having a plan in place will allow your staff members to spread their wings, recognize your dedication to investing in their growth, attend sessions they have an interest in, present on topics they have a passion for, network with other professionals, and gain knowledge to participate in the implementation process of new practices.

The 2016 NAA Annual Conference will be held March 20 – 23 in Orlando, Florida. Stay tuned for details. For information about state-level conventions, click here.

Written by Jaime Garcia, the executive director for Extend-A-Care for Kids.

 

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