I just returned from my first in-person conference in over two years. That isn’t to say I haven’t been to any in-person meetings. I certainly have. And, that isn’t to say I haven’t engaged with others socially, in person, throughout the pandemic. I certainly have, when safe to do so.
Instead, this was the first time in over 24 months that I gathered with a significant number of people, from beyond New York, to learn and grow together, with all the benefits and challenges that in-person learning has in a still uncertain time.
Overall, the experience was great. I’m more tired than I expected (I haven’t had this level of continuous academic and social interaction for 24 months), and I’m also more fulfilled than I could have hoped for. With that in mind, I wanted to share a few key takeaways from my learning in person at ASCD’s 2022 Annual Conference.
It is OK to make mistakes
It’s funny how easily we can flub interactions. For instance, during the first evening of the conference, I had to navigate head nods, handshakes and hugs, and try to wrestle with my own level of comfort. I’m sure I erred in greeting some colleagues the way they most wanted to be greeted; sometimes emotion and instinct take over.
I also think some of my skills in prolonged in-person group conversation have retracted quite a bit. I found myself struggling to keep conversations going in ways I wouldn’t have prior to the pandemic. And, after making a few comments, I wondered to myself, “Why did I say that?” In reality, I felt sloppy and awkward.
That said, during a session led by ASCD’s emerging leader cadre, educator Amy MacCrindle shared that we should actively be seeking out and welcoming mistakes if we are to become the best possible leaders we can be.
As I reflected on the weekend of learning, I recognized that she is 100% correct. Not only is it OK to make mistakes, but it is necessary. My social missteps this weekend helped me to remember what lengthy, in-person group communication is like. By the end of the weekend, I not only felt more comfortable with my own social miscues, but I was also moving back into the social patterns that were so important to me before COVID. Mistakes humble us into remembering who we are and ground us in taking steps towards who we want to be.
Formulaic is a good thing
Throughout my career, I have been seeking innovation through the creation of new and better. But, as I’ve learned, new isn’t always possible, and better does not always come from new.
During the opening session of the conference, as I was acclimating to being in the same space as hundreds of fellow educators, Weston Kieschnick shared an important realization that came his way not too long ago. In thinking about engaging learners, he realized that much of what draws us in and keeps our focus is formulaic in nature. Video games, songs, movies … all have a cadence that our bodies and minds recognize as familiar, priming us to let down our guard and become one with whatever we are experiencing.
This “senses alignment” is what we feel when we experience nostalgia, or when we enter a state of flow. And we see this only when we find ourselves in situations that are at least partly similar to what has come before.
This is one reason why we have all been in significant disequilibrium throughout the pandemic. The vast majority of us have never experienced anything like this before, making innovating in the space so much harder than we ever would have imagined.
As I’ve considered what Weston had shared, I’ve realized that innovation is best when we creatively build on ideas and experiences that we have had before, rather than attempting to ideate something wholly new.
Narrow the pathway
A good colleague and friend of mine, Tammy Musiowsky, led a session during the conference on educational minimalism, the focus of her recent book, The Minimalist Teacher. During the session, she spoke about the importance of prioritizing what is important in our practice and minimizing our clutter (including the physical, mental and emotional kinds).
I have had so many ideas, problems, situations and experiences cluttering my thinking over the last few years, including worries about family, work, friends and life in general. As I left Tammy’s session that afternoon, I recognized that filling my brain with so much at all times was maximizing my occupied brain space at the expense of prioritizing my productivity and health. I needed to remove the extraneous material, reinforce my focus and be willing to leave space empty that had been too filled before.
While flying home, I looked at my daily calendar over the last few months with sadness. Where was the time set to reflect, relax and just be? Tammy’s session helped to remind me that there are times when we can successfully live in multiple spaces and also those times when we can’t. Recognizing which is which, and then making the decision to keep to that, is an important area of growth for me.
There were so many more lessons learned throughout the conference, and one of the best parts about an event like this is that everyone has their own story to tell. Along with reflecting on reconnecting and my lessons learned, I took great joy in helping to connect others. Because, ultimately, in our short time on this planet (and our even shorter time in the professional space), new and sustained connections are what keep us whole.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.
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