DISCLOSURES: I have no connection to Get Your Teach On. I paid to attend their conference, have never presented for them, nor have I been approached about presenting for them. I am also president of Grassroots Workshops which provides online workshops, not in person conferences.
 
I attended the Get Your Teach On regional conference in Las Vegas on January 15-16, 2023, and it was unlike any other educator conference I’ve ever been to. My reason for going was to figure out why their conference attendance is growing while most other traditional educator conferences are declining.

While there, I tried to participate fully and keep an open mind. I took many notes, chatted with attendees, and shared some of what I saw on Twitter with as little bias as possible. I’ve spent the last few days putting it all together and have organized it into four reasons why I believe that teachers may be choosing to attend a Get Your Teach On (GYTO) conference over a traditional educator conference. Then I’ll share some critiques, data, and wonderings I still have.

 

GYTO Makes Conferences Look Fun
When I chatted with attendees and asked them how they chose to come to the conference, I heard all the answers you’d expect to hear:

  • My administrator was sending a team and asked me if I wanted to go.
  • My friend recommended it to me
  • We wanted to go somewhere with better weather

What I also heard repeatedly was that they came because the sessions looked like a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that said as a reason to attend any other teacher conference. I asked attendees if they had considered one of the other major teacher conferences and almost no one had even heard they existed. All they knew about was Get Your Teach On.

Now if you’re reading this blog post, then you’ve probably been an educator for so long that you struggle to remember back to when you had no idea that there were lots of conferences teachers could attend. I remember learning about NCTM because an administrator sent me to their 2005 conference, but I didn’t know NCSM existed until around my ninth year as a math educator. Maybe you eventually learned that there were many options to choose from, but if an educator didn’t know much about conferences, could you blame them for picking the one that seemed more fun?

If you’re struggling to comprehend how anyone could choose a conference based on which one seemed more fun, then imagine walking down Broadway Street in Nashville or Bourbon Street in New Orleans and trying to find a restaurant or bar to go into. All of them are filled with people, have plenty of food and drink, and live music. If it was your first time there, how would you know which one to choose? Could you blame someone for picking the one that seemed more fun?

As an example of how they put a fun spin on things, I generally don’t enjoy looking at pages of student data to extract insights. However, it was slightly more enjoyable when I used colorful highlighters and black lights in a dark room. Maybe the novelty will eventually wear off, but it didn’t during the session.

 

It made me wonder what the harm was in making a somewhat painful process less painful. Presenters Hope King and Amelia Capotosta shared that in addition to being fun, the functional purpose of pairing the black light with the highlighted text is that it made the important parts pop while the rest faded into the background.

Before I attended, I expected that teachers were coming to GYTO less because it was fun and more because they were fans of the presenters they followed online. But attendees kept saying that they heard stories and saw pictures and video on social media of teachers having fun learning about activities they could do with students. They wanted to bring that same kind of energy to their classrooms.

In fact, I talked to multiple teachers who were disappointed with the conference because it was not what they expected. They thought it would be much more fun like the stuff shared on social media where teachers were creating things and doing more interactive stuff that. They were disappointed that it was more focused on strategies to use with their students.

Each of the rooms was heavily decorated with their own themes. I was in the Star Wars room but other rooms were themed around Jurassic Park, Ghost Busters, and Super Mario Brothers. These days we frown upon uninviting classrooms with nothing on the wall and admire classrooms that are decorated to be warm and inviting. Why can’t it be the same for conference rooms? While it’s not something I expected to like, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have fun playing with the light sabers, helmets, and fiberoptic lights at my table. Wearing a ridiculous neon outfit was also silly fun.

 

What I also came to realize is that for many teachers, going to an out-of-town conference may be the closest thing they’ll get to a vacation all year. So I don’t blame them for wanting to have fun while they’re there. While the way GYTO runs their conference may not be your preference, it doesn’t mean others are bad for having it be their preference. For example, I have no desire to go to a polka concert, but it doesn’t mean that polka is bad. They’re doing what they prefer.

And you probably won’t be surprised about what the top result is when you search for “fun teacher conference” on Google.

 

GYTO Made Teachers Feel Valued
Let’s be real: teachers have had a very hard last few years and any improvements are coming slowly. I believe this affects professional development in ways that most organizations are ignoring.

I’m reminded of a hierarchy of needs where the needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before we can strive for the needs higher up. If teachers are struggling to get through the day without breaking down, then they probably need their Esteem needs met before they can begin working on the desire to become the best teacher they can be (Self-actualization).

When I think about most conferences I’ve attended, they almost always focus solely on being better teachers, which is not bad, but it misses the reality that educators are struggling right now. At GYTO, speakers spent a lot of time on empathy, sharing struggles, and acknowledging the challenges.

Overall, this investment felt like time well spent and made teachers feel seen and valued.

I don’t know if this was intentional or accidental, but presenters navigated the conference like they were just another teacher and not superior to attendees. I had never thought about it before, but there are often structures in place that separate the presenter from the audience. For example:

  • Presenters usually dress up at conferences but at GYTO they were all fashionably casual or even in costumes. There was nothing close to formal or business casual that I saw. As a result, the presenters felt like one of us and not some higher status level.
  • Presenters usually talk from the stage at conferences but at GYTO, they REALLY worked the room. I’ve literally never seen more presenters mingle through the banquet tables than I did at this conference. If presenters were even on the stage at all, it was very briefly. So again, it felt like they were a knowledgeable colleague whose opinion you value and not a sage on the stage we were obligated to learn from.
  • Presenters usually stick to the content at traditional conference but at GYTO if felt like they told more stories. Traditional conference presentations usually feel like a race to share as much data and pedagogy as you can fit in an hour. At GYTO, presenters integrated a lot more stories. While this left less time for new content, it did ground the session and tied what we were learning back into why we were learning it.

Accordingly, if the presenters were valued and seemed to be just like you, then it made you feel valued too.

For me, the most unexpectedly profound moment of the conference happened in Wade King’s “School of Rock” session where he shared how he welcomed students at the start of class with music, song, and dance. The whole process took him a minute or two each day. He then shared a video of his mostly Black students in Atlanta exploding with jubilance as they danced and sang along. They were so incredibly joyous and I’m sure it made school feel like a place they belonged. They felt valued.

Prior to attending this session, I thought that incorporating music and dance was unnecessary. But I’m realizing that I’ve been looking through lenses that have been heavily biased by my own experiences. Without music and dance, would these same students feel like their class wasn’t welcoming for them?

This made me think about whether the same could be true with music and dance at teacher conferences. Most teacher conferences have no music and dance and many educators cringe at the idea of incorporating them. But Wade’s session made me wonder if this lack of music and dance makes some people feel that traditional teacher conferences are not welcoming for them either.

It made me wonder who determined what behaviors were and were not appropriate at conferences. For a lot of cultures, music and dance are integral parts. What biases are left unchecked when we decide that those behaviors don’t belong at a conference? What messages are we sending without realizing it that only some groups of teachers and students should feel welcomed and valued?

It’s not my intention to say that every conference should have music and dance, but I do think we should pause and unpack our own biases and assumptions before judging others who do value it.

I’d be lying if I said that the clap out (I had to learn this term) at the very end of the conference didn’t catch me off guard. Apparently they often take place at elementary schools at the end of the year to send of the graduating class. Take 20 seconds and watch a bit of it.


 
While I didn’t feel like singing or dancing, it’s important to notice a few things:

  • Many people walking down the hallway happily joined in and sang and danced.
  • No one forced others to participate.
  • The whole thing was over in under a minute.

This clap out made GYTO attendees feel valued and for those who weren’t interested in participating, it was still a surreal spectacle to watch that passed quickly.

 

GYTO Crushes Social Media Marketing
I’ve never seen a teacher professional development organization use social media more effectively than Get Your Teach On. No other group comes close.

Everywhere you looked at the conference, there was somewhere to take a beautiful picture you could share on social media. At every session I heard reminders about raffles for people who were sharing things on social media. It was never too much of an ask and always completely optional, but I’m sure it resulted in thousands of posts all over social media. I’ll bet that their teacher friends back home were wishing that they were at the conference and will be hoping to go next time.

It reminds me of how when the holidays come, my wife asks me to get the corresponding box of decorations out of the garage. Personally, I would never decorate the house if I lived alone but I do it because it makes her happy. What I’ve come to realize though is that once it’s done, I actually like how our home looks festive. But again, I would have never chosen this for myself.

Similarly, if I was in charge of decorating a conference, I just wouldn’t. If I had known how many decorations there were going to be at GYTO before I attended it, I would have absolutely thought that it was over-the-top and unnecessary. But after attending the conference, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was the most beautiful and welcoming conference space I’ve ever seen. Again, if the choice was up to me, I wouldn’t have decorated it. But once I saw how it all came together, I really did appreciate it.

In related news, guess who was the one that suggested we take these photos. I didn’t really want to take them, but now that it’s done, I’m glad we have them because it’s a memory we’ll keep.

 

Every major teacher professional development organization has an advertising budget. From what I’ve seen, most traditional organizations spend that money on flyers in the mail or advertisements on websites and social media. That can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. It appears that Get Your Teach On spends their money differently. I’d estimate that they spent at least $10,000 on room decorations and balloons. At first that amount seemed outrageous, but the more I thought about it, the more brilliant it became. You could easily spend $10,000 running ads that few people would even look at. Instead, you made the space beautiful, which people enjoyed, and then those same people took countless photos they shared on social media. Those social media photos would be far more valuable than any advertisement you could possibly make. Recommendations from friends is the most effective kind of marketing and GYTO works that like a well-oiled machine.

The reality is that the oldest Gen Xers are already starting to retire from education while Millennials and Gen Z are rapidly growing… and they’re all on Instagram and TikTok which rely on beautiful and enticing imagery. If we continue to dismiss aesthetics and social media as silly or unnecessary, we will absolutely be the curmudgeonly old people complaining about what conferences were like back in our day.

 

GYTO Doesn’t Make You Feel Dumb
Before GYTO, I had never seen a conference where the attendees stayed in the same room for almost the entire conference while the presenters rotated from room-to-room. This resulted in a single-track conference where everyone in each room saw the same sessions together.

It reminded me of a restaurant with a fixed menu where what you’ll eat has been mostly chosen for you. While sometimes I do want to pick items from a menu, it can also be convenient to have the restaurant pick their favorites for me. This is especially true at a new restaurant where I don’t want to feel dumb for missing out on their most popular dishes.

Before I had experienced a conference like this, I may have thought that not being able to choose my sessions at a conference would be bad. However, having them choose my sessions came with some unexpected benefits that I had never considered.

First, there was no feeling disappointed because you picked a bad session or because your friends were in a session you missed out on. Everyone eventually got to see all same presentations over the course of the conference (with the exception of a choice of flex sessions during the first evening and lunch).

How many times have you been at a conference where:

  • there were so many choices that you didn’t know which one to pick and had FOMO?
  • the session you wanted to go to was so far away that you didn’t want to walk there?
  • nothing looked good in that time slot so you didn’t pick anything?
  • by the time you got to your session it was full?

All of these situations are bummers that make you unhappy and literally every one of them disappears with a single-track conference. And I’m not even addressing the possibility that you may look at the program and have no idea what to pick.

In addition to avoiding downsides, being in the same room with the same tablemates for pretty much the entire conference gives you some additional benefits you don’t get at traditional conferences:

  • You can bond and become friends with the people you’re sitting with as you learn together.
  • At most conferences, organizers must guess how many people will attend each session. As a result, they often put speakers in big rooms to accommodate potential demand. With a single-track conference, you know how many people will be in each room ahead of time so you can customize room sizes by adding or removing a partition to shrink or grow the space. As a result, each room at the GYTO conference appeared to be just the right size for all the tables to be nearly full. This resulted in great energy. I know that when I present, having 300 people in a room for 300 feels amazing whereas having 300 people in a room for 1200 feels terrible.

I also wanted to share this insightful take from Shannon Kiebler, an experienced math educator and consultant who shared that “Attending [traditional conferences like] NCTM takes some vulnerability. I consider myself an expert in the field and I feel very out of place there. I feel inadequate and not very ‘smart.’ GYTO is the make you feel good, re-inspire you conference that gives every type of a teacher some easy ideas to implement. You belong because you teach. It feels more for the teacher who isn’t looking to be an expert in one content area, but rather wants to improve practice in every area.”

 

Critiques
There are no perfect teacher conferences and GYTO is no exception. So I wanted to share some critiques I have.

Session Content
I attend dozens of conference sessions every year and I’ve never been to a conference where I didn’t see questionable content or thought that there could have been a better choice for a speaker. This conference was no exception.
In my opinion, there were a few GYTO sessions where instructional strategies were being shared that were not pedagogically sound.

For perspective, I created this poll to see what other educators thought.

 

Based on the data, it seems like this is an unfortunately common experience. Accordingly, some GYTO sessions left me feeling disappointed, just like I do at every conference.

If you prefer conferences that go deep into a single subject (like mathematics), this is not the right conference for you. If instead you teach multiple subjects or want strategies that can be applied to a broad spectrum of classes, this may be a great fit for you.

Sessions were less about teaching content and more about general teaching practices like classroom conversations, student motivation, and culture. I guess that’s what you’d expect when you’re presenting to elementary teachers that could have a wide variety of assignments.

Also, sometimes it felt like the presenters were focusing more on “here are some strategies that have worked for us” without going deeply into how to actually do the same with your students. This is something I see at other conferences as well.

 

Missed Opportunities
I think that GYTO missed opportunities to help attendees make connections with one another. It took me a while to realize that I’d be sitting with the same people for the entire conference so it would have been nice if they had started the conference with ice breakers where we could meet our tablemates and get to know one another. It would have also been nice to give everyone name tags as I never learned anyone’s name. Instead we had lanyards with our grade levels on them.

 

Wonderings
Here are some questions I’m still asking myself after the conference.

What could a Building Thinking Classrooms approach teach us about conference best practice?
Attending the Get Your Teach On Conference gave me a great opportunity to question conventional wisdom for how conferences are set up. It made me think about Peter Liljedahl’s work with Building Thinking Classrooms. If you haven’t read his magnificent book, he researched the best strategies for getting students thinking. For example, was it better for students to sit or stand when working? What was the ideal number of students in a group? What was the best furniture layout for a classroom? Was it better to show students directions or tell it to them verbally? Some of the results were what you’d expect and some were shockingly counterintuitive.

Has anyone ever tried doing something similar for conferences? Do teachers have better outcomes when music is playing or when there is silence? When they choose their sessions or have them chosen for them? How many teachers should sit together? Should they be standing or sitting during a presentation?

I think that we hold traditional conference practices to be the gold standard and the GYTO conference innovations made me question whether we might be wrong.
 
How are the presenters and sessions chosen?
As far as I can tell, this is not the kind of conference you can apply to speak at. So, I wonder how the presenters and the topics they present about are chosen. What factors are GYTO looking for? How much does GYTO influence what presenters talk about (as someone mentioned they are all on the same theme)? How much professional and financial support are presenters given?

You might prefer the process that traditional conferences use where potential speakers go through an application process and a committee uses a rubric to review their proposals. However, there are still bad sessions at traditional conferences so that process is far from flawless.
 
Who are traditional conferences scaring away?
I keep thinking about Wade King’s music session. I keep thinking about how when a presenter asked us to get up and move to the music, attendees of color seemed to really enjoy the experience. I keep thinking about how traditional conferences often lament the lack of attendee diversity but change almost nothing.

Which educators are we discouraging from participating in conferences because we’re not including things that make them happy? This includes everything from how we interact at the conference, what attendees and presenters are wearing, and the routines we use including call and response.


 

What are conferences like elsewhere?
I’d love the opportunity to attend teacher education conferences in other countries, especially ones that are not built around Western, patriarchal, white norms. I think that we’re so used to conferences being the way they’ve been that we’ve lost perspective that it doesn’t have to be that way.
 
How does the GYTO national conference differ from the regional conference?
I don’t fully know how the GYTO national conference differs from the regional conferences. Aside from their epic kickoff, I know the national is supposed to be K-12 so I’m curious about whether it’s still a K-12 multi-subject conference or if they have specific strands for each subject. They did mention that they repeat the same sessions for the two regionals and one national conference and then have all new sessions the next year.

 

Data I Collected
Here are some data I collected. Almost all of it is subjectively based on my observations and I may be far off in reality.

  • The Get Your Teach On regional conference cost $450 for a 1.5 day conference. It also cost an additional $10 for a printed program and an additional $15.08 if you wanted to pay with a credit card.
  • They stated in an email that there were over 1500 people in attendance.
  • Based on questions the presenters asked attendees, I estimate that at least 95% of attendees were at their first GYTO conference. It is a newer conference and there was a pandemic that made attending challenging, so I don’t know if this implies that it’s just getting started or if people are not returning after coming once.
  • Six of my sessions had a single presenter and five had co-presenters.
  • Based on the handful of people I asked, the funding they used to come to the conference seemed like what I see elsewhere with about 1/3 of people paying for themselves and about 2/3 of the people having someone else (like their school or a grant) pay for them.
  • Attendee demographics (based on my perception of how they presented) seemed fairly similar to other education conferences I’ve been to except:
    • the average age was probably about ten years younger (heavily Millenial)
    • there were far more female attendees, and I suspect that was because it was primarily a conference for elementary school teachers
    • there appeared to be slightly more people of color than at other teacher conferences I go to
  • Presenter demographics (based on my perception of how they presented) were:
    • 6 people of color versus 11 white people
    • 4 male presenters versus 13 female presenters
    • Note that I saw many presenters two or three times, so they were counted multiple times. For example, Hope King was a co-presenter for three sessions and was counted three times in the data.
    • Many sessions had co-presenters and I counted each of them separately.

 

Conclusion
Attending the Get Your Teach On conference helped me reflect on how we provide professional development to educators. Asking whether or not this is a good conference is missing the bigger point. The reality is that many attendees had a fantastic time at the conference and were thrilled that they came. They loved the experience in a way that I rarely see attendees feel. There were also plenty of attendees who felt like the conference did not meet their needs, just like at other conferences.

Dismissing what GYTO has accomplished without trying to better understand how educators’ needs have changed over the last decade is foolish, bordering on negligent. I believe that younger teachers appear much more likely to attend conferences like theirs than traditional conferences. If we have any desire to stay relevant, we have an obligation to reflect on what we’re doing and learn how to better meet the needs of more teachers, especially younger ones and teachers of color.

What do you think? What do you agree with me on? What do you think I’m wrong about? What questions do you still want answered? Let me know in the comments.

6 Comments

  1. I was not at the conference but from seeing posts on social media, it felt very Pinterest-y to me?! Flashy and colourful lol. I love going to NCTM because I learn lots!

    • What I’ve come to realize is that just because other people don’t prefer to learn the same way that I do, it doesn’t mean that their way is bad. Here’s a question for you: if NCTM decorated their conference the same way that GYTO did, would that make was you learn there any better or worse? If not, then why should a conference that is flashy and colorful mean that you can’t learn lots there?

  2. If GYTO is on one end of a binary with NCTM on the other, I’d rather attend a conference that’s fun and energizing than one packed to the gills with content. The bar is currently pretty low for what makes a “good session” at a math conference, and it’s rare to leave a session feeling inspired, much less an entire weekend.
    There are definitely ideas to be shared from this event.

    • Thanks Matt. I am not trying to endorse GYTO as the perfect conference. More, I’m trying to get PD providers (and especially conference organizers) to reflect on the choices they make and how they affect attendees.

  3. This bit struck me the most… “I asked attendees if they had considered one of the other major teacher conferences and almost no one had even heard they existed. All they knew about was Get Your Teach On.”

    It’s difficult to compare conferences that you’ve never heard of. It sounds like major teacher conferences have a marketing problem.

    Social media is clearly understood and used by GYTO conference leaders, marketers, and attendees. Large teacher associations with declining membership and conference attendance need to catch up to bring in younger teachers.

    • YES. This is absolutely a takeaway I want people to have. The way information travels has changed drastically over the last twenty years. Most traditional conferences are using essentially the same marketing strategies as they did decades ago without fully understanding how much has changed.

      If they don’t adjust rapidly, they’re screwed.

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