Minnesota’s education conference draws thousands for training, but has its critics
The elementary education students at St. Catherine University in St. Paul were assigned by their professor to attend Education Minnesota’s Professional Conference at the RiverCentre.
“There are so many resources here that when I become a teacher I could use in my classroom,” said Dubisar, who had a bag filled with conference freebees after circling through the crowded exhibition hall filled with vendors in downtown St. Paul.
Mooney felt a sense of community among the teachers. “It’s so cool we can all come together like this,” she said.
The students are two of an estimated 10,000 people Education Minnesota officials say will attend the annual conference Thursday and Friday.
Each year, the conference falls on a Thursday and Friday so most students get two days off school, allowing teachers, administrators and parents to attend the exhibits, training and speeches.
The event has become a Minnesota tradition with the union setting dates for the conference through 2022. Union leaders and education advocates were unaware of another state with an event of similar size and scope.
It’s impossible to tell who attends or where they come from because the event is free and open to the public. There is no registration. Organizers say attendance numbers are conservative estimates, and they believe most come from the Twin Cities area.
Education Minnesota president Denise Specht said the conference is a critical time for teachers to share ideas and learn new techniques.
“The conference is something we budget for every year and we feel is extremely important,” Specht said.
“The way we look at it, professional development needs to be part of the work we do, not an add-on, but integrated into what we do.”
While teachers look forward to the event each fall, it also has its critics.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, who is the ranking Republican on the House Education Policy Committee, attended the conference as an English teacher and later as a lawmaker. Erickson supports professional development for teachers, but she said the conference comes at a critical time in the school year.
“Students need to be in the classroom,” Erickson said. “This is a break in a child’s education that shouldn’t occur this time in the school year. I suspect in elementary school, teachers just finished reviewing last year and launched into new skills, and now students have this break.”
Some districts extend the break by adding conferences or other training, she added. And some families use the time for vacations.
Union leaders, including Specht and Julie Blaha, president of the Anoka-Hennepin teacher’s union, say the conference happens at the perfect time because it allows teachers to put new skills to use right away.
“One benefit of having staff development midyear is you can choose what you need for the students you have right now. You don’t know what you need until you meet your students,” Blaha said. “Anything you learn you can apply on Monday.”
Participants can choose from dozens of workshops that address issues including the achievement gap, student mental health and school safety.
New York writer Paul Tough and Anton Treuer of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University were scheduled speak along with Specht and Brenda Cassellius, the state education commissioner.
Kathy Saltzman, a former lawmaker and school district lobbyist now working with the education reform group StudentsFirst, said she supported teacher training. But Saltzman was skeptical one conference could benefit all the state’s teachers equally and thoroughly address the state’s biggest challenges.
“We know teachers need professional development, the question is should that professional development look like this conference,” Saltzman said.
Those conference resources were essential for Lee Rauworth, a student teacher at Pillsbury Elementary in Minneapolis. Rauworth came to the conference to network, get free stuff for his classroom and attend workshops.
“You never know who is going to show up at these things,” said Rauworth, who was excited to see Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” last year. “The workshops are very good resources. I feel like they really want to help.”
The vendors are what drew Laura Krajewski, a Stillwater High School biology teacher, and her 10-year-old son, Logan.
“Within an hour, I can hit 40 different vendors,” said Krajewski, who was looking for new classroom tools. Her son was happy to snag a Hershey bar and a T-shirt.
But those vendors and workshops are not accessible to every teacher in the state. Susan Ninham, a principal at Red Lake Middle School, 280 miles north of the Twin Cities, said few of her teachers attend the conference because of the distance.
Ninham carefully “picks and chooses what I see and hear” so she can bring back as much useful information as possible to her staff.
She said she wishes the union would do more to connect rural districts with conference events.
“I’m not satisfied unless I know what I need to know to have an impact on my profession,” Ninham said. But not every educator who feels the same way can make the trek to St. Paul.