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Classwork and Conferences

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For many of us, our days of sitting in a classroom are behind us.  We all have fond memories of our favorite classes…the ones that taught us the lessons we still use today.  They likely had teachers or professors that truly cared about their subject, and classmates who made each day fun.  But, if you’re anything like me, you also remember the other end of the spectrum.  The classes that you dreaded all week.  The ones that made your friends feel sorry for you.  While it may feel like those courses were only good for the horror stories they allow us to tell today, I think that conference attendees and organizers can gain a lot from reflecting on those experiences.  For example…

Remember substitute teachers?  Remember how an unexpected instructor switch seemed to throw off the mojo of the class?  We sometimes encounter the same problem with speakers at conferences.  The regularly scheduled presenter could have fallen ill, had a family emergency, or gotten stuck in a blizzard.  It happens.   As a conference staffer you'll likely have to think on your toes and find a replacement.  As an attendee, you still have to attend the session, possibly with the hopes of meeting a continuing education requirement that you’ve been putting off.  Either way, you need this session to work.  Instead of just going with the flow, however, think about dealing with a substitute in school.  Just because your teacher missed a couple of days didn’t mean your tests and assignments were canceled.  So, instead of admitting defeat, you had to make a larger effort to understand the material being covered in class.  Meet the substitute, or replacement speaker, half way.  Be engaged in what they are saying.  Ask questions if things are unclear.  Help them do a good job teaching you by being a respectful and understanding audience member.  It worked in school, and it will certainly help you out at a conference.  This goes for conference planners, too.  In situations like this, you may need to take a more hands-on approach.  Make sure the new speaker has everything he or she needs, is aware of what the audience expects, and is familiar with the materials the original speaker planned to present.  When you introduce them, encourage everyone to thank them for stepping in at the last minute.  If you can, stay and watch the presentation and be the kind of audience member you want the other attendees to be.  Chances are, these extra measures will go a long way to making both the speaker and the audience feel like the session was a success.

How about this situation:  Remember that teacher or professor who just didn’t like you?  You worked hard, you followed the syllabus, but no matter what you did you just couldn’t get on that guy’s good side.  We can sometimes feel this way when attending or hosting a conference.  Don’t get me wrong.  In my experience all the different players at a conference are usually pleasant to work with and have a lot of interesting things to contribute.  But everyone has a bad day now and again, and that can unfortunately put a wrinkle in an otherwise smooth program.  If you find yourself in this situation, think back to that difficult professor.  Approaching them on their level, fighting cranky with cranky so to speak, really didn’t work.  More often than not, it only exacerbated the problem.  My husband, ever the people pleaser, found himself in this situation more than once.  What worked for him was to kill them with kindness.  It certainly isn’t the student’s responsibility to fix a teacher’s bad day, but refusing to let their attitude influence yours and remaining positive and friendly will not only prevent that person’s bad attitude from becoming contagious, it just may brighten their day a bit.  In class, you had to remember that the important thing was to absorb the material being presented and apply it to your life and pursuits.  The same thing is true at a conference.  If you let someone else’s bad day become your bad day, then that’s likely to be the only thing you really take away from the experience.

Not every problem with difficult classes happened in the classroom.  Remember waiting until the last minute?  For many of us, this isn’t something that we stopped doing after graduation.  When a class’s subject matter presented a problem, either because it wasn’t interesting or because it seemed to be over your head, you may have put off that class’s work until you absolutely had to deal with it, sometimes on the way to that class.  We often do the same thing when preparing for a conference.  Everyone has that one part of the process that they dread.  No matter what part you play at a conference, you’ve probably got some responsibility that you wish would simply disappear.  Like in school, it is tempting to ignore that task until you no longer have a choice but to do it.  I used to compare it to a pressure cooker when I was in college.  All the ingredients are there, but until enough pressure builds up nothing gets done.  But is bottled up stress really the best way to go?  Instead, try doing that task first.  I know, I know, it sounds horrible.  But just picture how good you’ll feel knowing it’s out of the way!  Then you can go through the rest of the planning process without it hanging over your head.  I never quite perfected this technique in college, but I’m sure some of you have more will power than me!

I’m sure there are other lessons to be learned from the courses that still haunt our nightmares (the one where you walk into class late and there’s a test you didn’t know about), but hopefully you get the picture.  Just because a class, or a conference, doesn’t go perfectly according to plan doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy the process and grow from the experience, hosts and attendees alike.  Obviously, you should do everything you can to prevent problems before they start, such as selecting a venue you know you can trust, but when problems crop up approach them with the creative problem solving skills you cultivated as a student!


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