The Learning Forward Annual Conference has always been one of my favorites, and the closer it gets each year, the more anxious I get about making the most of the learning experience. In particular, I worry about forgetting to pack something important. Even with a virtual conference, I still feel some preparation anxiety, and you might, too. After all, we’re still learning how to attend virtual conferences in order to further our own professional growth and impact our schools’ and students’ outcomes.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few lessons about what to bring in order to maximize learning, even when the conference is virtual. For this year’s conference, you won’t need an extra pair of shoes, but I recommend you bring the following things in your virtual suitcase.

A strong purpose

It’s easy to get lost in the excitement and the variety of conference sessions, so pick a focus and choose your sessions accordingly. Before you attend, determine your learning goal based on some key questions: Why did you want to attend the Learning Forward 2021 Annual Conference? What needs do you have that it will meet? Do your session choices align with that goal? Learning Forward’s Transformation Toolkit has a fantastic template for planning.

If you have colleagues attending and you are all working on the same school or district initiative, plan to divide and conquer. If you each choose a unique focus, you can all learn and share more with one another.

Dedication to learning  

I struggle with virtual learning. I multitask, get distracted, feel disconnected. For many of us, this past year has spotlighted how those annoying habits get in the way of being fully present. But dedication and intentional strategies can help you avoid them.

Clear your calendar and your space. Take a professional leave day and do not work in the office, if possible. Find a quiet, secluded space with good WiFi. Don’t be shy about putting a ”do not disturb” sign on your door and telling your colleagues and family, “I am engaging in my own professional growth” during this time. As teachers, we are lifelong learners. Other educators should be able to respect this – and students will ultimately benefit from it.

Once you’re settled in your space, minimize distractions so that you won’t divide your attention by multitasking. Put aside your cell phone and pile of articles to read. Set an “out of office” auto-response on your email and close your inbox. It can be incredibly difficult to do these things, but it can be crucial to your learning.

Your engaging, extroverted self

We know that adults (and students!) learn better when actively engaged in dialogue, discussion, and collaboration. This is the hardest part for me. As an introvert, I have to expend a lot of energy to engage and interact. But I know this is essential to a valuable and rewarding conference experience.

Even if it’s challenging for you, I encourage you to engage in chats and participate in small group breakouts. Meet and talk with other professionals in the Networking Lounges and in offline chats. Some of us introverts also find it easier to engage on social media. You can use the conference hashtag #LearnFwd2021 to share and get great ideas and even to get to know other attendees.

Remember to debrief daily with your teams or a close colleague about how your learning relates to your goals. Although you can also reflect on your own, informal dialogue encourages you to articulate their thoughts, and it also gives you a chance to learn from others’ learning.

An appetite for learning

So much to learn, so little time? There’s actually more time than you think. With Learning Forward’s 2021 Annual Conference, you don’t have to fret about what you missed because you will have access to all the sessions offered on any day you register through the end of March. What a great way to continue your learning.