Guest column: MEA fall conference is good for students, families, educators

By Joe Nathan – Guest Columnist

Recent conversations with 30 Minnesota educators about the MEA fall conference, Oct. 20-21, convinced me of several things. First, the traditional fall conference is a good deal for students, families and taxpayers. Second, the meeting has considerable value for many educators.

Chris Williams, Education Minnesota press secretary, pointed out that the teachers’ union makes approximately 110 workshops and speakers available at no cost to educators and parents. The union spent about $175,000 on the MEA conference last year.

The conference offers a vast array of workshops on practical issues. As several educators pointed out to me, teachers can pick sessions on subjects that they’ve identified as priorities, such as improving math or science instruction, discipline, working with gifted students or helping youngsters with eating disorders. So teachers from all over the state are learning how to be more effective. More information about the conference is available here: http://bit.ly/2dVHAgN.

The sessions don’t cost educators or their schools anything. This represents a huge savings for educators and taxpayers. Moreover, as each district or charter leader I talked with pointed out, teachers are not paid to attend the conference.

Traditionally some families have used the four-day weekend to take a mini-vacation. It is a useful break for many students and families. Some districts provide child care over the two days for families that need it.

John Schultz, Hopkins Public Schools superintendent, and Paula Klinger, president of Hopkins Education Association, spoke for many in saying that the conference provides participants with “exceptional opportunities to connect with educators from across the state, listen to keynote speakers, visit vendors focusing on educational opportunities and products, and participate in the many sessions/presentations/workshops offered.”

Williams pointed out, “In a typical year, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 people at the conference.” Most of them are educators, but some are parents or others interested in learning more about schools. That compares to about 86,000 members of Education Minnesota. Some educators use the (unpaid) days to refine their curriculum, attend other meetings held at the same time or do other professional tasks. Some educators supervise their own children.

Might more people attend if the conference were held during the summer?

Donald Sinner, president of Education Minnesota-Lakeville and a board member of Education Minnesota, told me: “(The conference) is perfectly placed in the fall; it is early enough in the school year that attendees can implement learning into their classrooms immediately. Attendance would not be as robust in the summer.”

Here are comments about the conference I received via email from educators in your area.

ANOKA-HENNEPIN

James Skelly, director of communications and public relations for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, wrote that the two days are “non-duty” days, so teachers are not paid; attendance is optional for teachers. “The district does not require or maintain data regarding the conference.”

 

BLOOMINGTON:

Les Fujitake, Bloomington Public Schools superintendent, wrote that teachers are not required to attend. He wrote that among the most important things that participating teachers learn are “best practices, latest and research findings.” He noted, “The district does provide child care for a fee.

 

BROOKLYN CENTER

Mark Bonine, Brooklyn Center Schools superintendent, wrote that teachers are not required to attend and are not paid for the two days: “We provide the time off so teachers can attend if they want but do not require it.”

Bonine also described the most important things that teachers who do attend, learn: “There are more than 110 classes offered at the conference, so it’s difficult to generalize. Many educators go to the conference to earn their continuing education credits, which are required to maintain their teaching licenses. Other popular topics include improving school discipline, bullying prevention, recognizing mental illness in students and incorporating the latest findings in cognitive science into everyday lessons. The conference also features nationally known speakers. In recent years, we’ve had authors Diane Ravitch and international education expert Pasi Sahlberg. The keynote speaker this year will be Dana Goldstein, author of ’The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.’”

Asked if it would be wise to hold meetings in the summer, rather than during the school year, Bonine responded: “Anything is possible, but school districts run summer school programs anywhere from four to 10 weeks. Many teachers that attend sessions at MEA do so in response to needs they identify in the first weeks of school. It’s quite common for teachers to learn they have a student with a particular need in September and then come to St. Paul in October to learn more about educating that student or similar students. For example, new teaching techniques are recommended for children who have experienced very high levels of stress and trauma in their lives.”

Bonine also pointed out: “MEA weekend is a Minnesota tradition. Families go on long weekends. High school students schedule college visits. The Wednesday before MEA weekend is one of the busiest travel days of the entire year at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.”

 

BROOKLYN PARK

EXCELL ACADEMY

Sabrina Williams, executive director of Excell Academy in Brooklyn Park, wrote: “Teachers are required to attend or participate in some form of professional development. Teachers turn in a summary of what they did.” She thinks that teachers who attend the MEA conference “connect/network with other teachers, refresh their instructional skills, get updated with the most current research in content, assessment and instructional strategies.”

Williams sees a benefit to staff training at the MEA conference and over the summer: “Both times would be appropriate as teachers would benefit by participating during a portion of the summer months but also during the school year while they are on the job/doing the work.”

 

EDINA

Ric Dressen, Edina Public Schools superintendent, wrote that the two days are not part of the required number of days that teachers work under their contract and that they are not required to attend the MEA conference. He has not attended the conference, but noted, “Educators are always ready to connect with one another to discuss timely topics that enhance their skills.”

 

ELK RIVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Bruce Watkins, Elk River Area Schools’ interim superintendent, wrote: “ISD 728 (Elk River) teachers are not required to attend MEA. In Elk River, these are non-contract days (teachers are not paid for these days). Our contract calls for 172 student contact days and an additional 18 days of parent conferences, staff development and workshop days, all of which are served and facilitated in the district.

“Some of our teachers may choose to attend the MEA conference, but that would be on their own unpaid day. Generally the conference is an opportunity for professional development, professional dialogue across districts, review of best practices and a look at new trends in education.”

Watkins also pointed out, “Our district provides child care during these two days at six different locations.”

 

 

HOPKINS:

John Schultz, Hopkins Public Schools superintendent, and Paula Klinger, President of Hopkins Education Association, responded to my questions about the MEA conference. They explained that while Hopkins teachers are not required to attend, “these sessions offer training on staff development, renewal of licenses, mental health, PBIS, eating disorders, special education, science technology, engineering and mathematics, equity, mentoring, financial planning, college debt management, Every School Succeeds Act, and finally planning for retirement, and this is a partial list. The meetings are for teachers and paraprofessionals.”

Schultz and Klinger explained that the meeting is held during the school year for several reasons. “Most importantly, the focus of the conference is on techniques and ideas that teachers can take back to the classroom and use right away with their students. This schedule provides the greatest benefit to students’ learning. In the summer, many teachers would not be able to attend because they are taking continuing-education courses to stay current in their field and fulfill licensing requirements, teaching summer school or working summer jobs to supplement their salaries.”

They concluded: “We want to make this opportunity available to as many educators as possible. It’s a local school district’s decision whether to make the conference days non-school days. Most do, but some do not. … Like the non-teaching days for Thanksgiving, winter break, and spring break, MEA days are not paid days for our teachers.”

 

OSSEO:

Kate Maguire, District 279 superintendent, wrote: “Teachers in our school district are not required to attend the October teacher professional conferences sponsored by Education Minnesota. We do not have any negotiated language regarding these days. Our school district, like other Minnesota school districts, has traditionally built its school calendar around these days so these are non-work days for teachers.

“I believe that teachers who attend the conference have access to valuable professional development and networking opportunities.

“I do not have a favored position one way or the other about when these conferences should be held; there are advantages and implications to either timeframe. The October timeframe enables teachers to implement new practices during the current school year and this timeframe allows Osseo Area Schools to offer substantial local professional development during the summer. A summer timeframe for the conference might allow districts to shorten the school year by two days; however, it also reduces two days of professional development that we could offer locally in the summer.

“Our district does keep the Kidstop programs open on the first day of the conferences so that families who need it could access full day care. Sometimes, the Kidstop program does schedule a special field trip experience on that day. The program is closed on the second day while staff members engage in professional development.”

 

  1. LOUIS PARK

St. Louis Park Public Schools Superintendent Robert Metz wrote: “Our teachers are not paid for the two MEA days. They are non-work days and provide an opportunity for teachers from all over the state to get together, on their own time, to meet and learn with and from one another. I think it is especially beneficial for outstate teachers who have to travel long distances to meet with colleagues. Because they are non-paid days, we do not require our teachers to attend.”

 

Chris Williams of Education Minnesota told me that Minnesota teachers have been meeting in the fall since 1861. He continued: “The tradition of giving teachers the day off from school to attend goes back to the 1960s or even earlier. In the early 1990s, the modern conference with its focus on professional development began. That’s when union business, including officer elections, was moved to separate meetings in the spring.”

The conference formerly was hosted by the Minnesota Education Association, which merged in 1998 with the Minnesota Federation of Teachers to form Education Minnesota. But the term “MEA” had become part of Minnesota culture. The conference is again called MEA – Minnesota Educators Academy.

Overall, the fall MEA conference seems like a timely, valuable tradition.

 

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.