This post was written by NCTE Community Ambassador Shawn Towner.
I am an introvert. I’m not good at initiating conversations. I feel claustrophobic in crowds or long lines. My idea of a night out is getting takeout and watching a movie at home. For these reasons, my first trip to the NCTE annual Convention in 2012 was a terrifying experience. I had never been to Las Vegas. There were 7000 teachers there, plus the crowds coming to Vegas for the weekend, the MMA fight, or the Eagles concert on Saturday night.
It was overwhelming, and I made it worse for myself with the way I approached it.
When I first looked at the Convention Program, I wanted to see everything. You might get a similar feeling when you take a look at the program for this year’s convention in Baltimore. The great thing about a large conference like NCTE is that there are so many great sessions to attend and so many amazing people to learn from.
The downside is that there’s no way to see them all. But back in 2012, I was determined to try. I packed my bag with granola bars and bottles of water and marathoned session after session after session.
By Saturday night, I was completely burned out. I ended up spending over an hour stuffing my face at the Mandalay Bay buffet. On Sunday, I went to one session and then checked out of my hotel and drove back home to Arizona. Because of the way I pushed myself, I never had time to process what I was hearing during the sessions. It wasn’t until I got back home that I was able to look through my notes and the session handouts and really begin to apply what I had learned.
In subsequent trips to the NCTE Convention, I’ve made steady improvements as to how to successfully navigate it without feeling stressed out all the time.
I thought that because I knew what to expect, I’d be able to power through sessions. I was wrong.
Very quickly, I felt just as stressed as I had been that Saturday night in Vegas. And I was beginning to question why I even came.
Was I a good enough teacher to be there learning among all these amazing people doing innovative things in their classrooms?
Was I a good enough graduate student and researcher to deserve a spot presenting?
I ditched the conference and started wandering through the Minneapolis Skyway system. It turns out that a long walk was just what I needed to sort my mind out. Stepping away gave me a chance to decompress and think about the reasons I wanted to be there.
I felt renewed, and I started building walking time into my schedule. I’d go to a session, then spend some time walking around, reflecting on what I’d learned and maybe looking for a good sandwich place.
When I made my first read-through of the schedule for this year’s Convention, I noted all the sessions that I’d be interested in attending, but I have no intention of even attempting to see them all. For me, attending the NCTE Convention is like working out at the gym: I have to listen to my body. If I’m in a good mood and think I can handle two sessions in a row, I’ll go to them. If not, I’ll go to a session and then spend some time wandering the city or checking out poster presentations or the #BuildYourStack sessions in the Exhibit Hall.
Since Minneapolis, I’ve attended the NCTE Conventions in Atlanta (2016) and Houston (2018). There are still some areas where I struggle—for instance, I don’t like crowds or lines, so the Exhibit Hall is not really my scene. But my new practice of going to a session and then taking a break for reflection has really helped improve my convention experience.
I also still struggle with some of the social aspects of the Convention. I don’t drink, so I don’t really fit in with the after-hours hotel bar crowd, and I don’t usually last long at social mixer events.
I do, however, recommend the breakfast/brunch/lunch sessions. They cost extra but feature some of the best speakers of the Convention. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m not good at the socializing/networking aspects of the breakfasts. I’m there to listen to a great speaker and eat all the croissants.
Now I realize all this might make it sound like the NCTE Convention is a terrifying, stressful place. And for an introvert, it is, at times.
But it’s also one of the best professional development experiences you’ll ever have. Thanks to NCTE Conventions, I’ve learned how to bring more choice in reading and writing into my classroom and how to better use mentor texts and modeling in writing instruction.
I’ve learned about alternatives to traditional grading and how to help students transition into the demands of college reading and writing.
I still have folders (both physical and digital) with handouts from my first Convention back in 2012. Every so often, I look back through my old NCTE notes and let them inspire me towards continually becoming a better teacher.
And now, an NCTE Community Ambassador, I want everyone to experience the benefits of the NCTE Convention while avoiding the struggles and stress that I first experienced.
To help you out, I’ve made a couple of infographics with tips for the Convention. I’ll be attending the 2019 Convention in Baltimore and I hope to see you there. If you have questions or need anything, don’t hesitate to ask me on Twitter (@mrtowner) or any of the other Community Ambassadors.
Shawn Towner is a teacher and an English education PhD student at Arizona State University. Shawn has worked in education for almost 15 years, starting as an elementary school custodian and eventually working as a substitute teacher, high school teacher, and university instructor. He hopes to spark his students’ passions for reading and writing. He currently lives in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.