In focus: Teachers’ convention: an annual rite that changes with the times

January 30, 2018
Jen Janzen, ATA News Staff
Every year Alberta teachers flock to one of 10 teachers’ conventions held throughout the province. (FILE)

Welcome to In Focus, an ongoing series that shines a spotlight on the operation and programs of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. This instalment focuses on teachers’ conventions.

If this is your first year at teachers’ convention, Dan Grassick can help. As the Association’s executive staff officer responsible for supporting the annual events, Grassick suggests there are two paths to choose from in order to maximize the value of your convention experience.

The first: Find a veteran teacher from your school or from another school who teaches the same subject area as you. Co-plan your two days of convention and shadow each other, using break times to network with others. The pros? Along with developing a sense of camaraderie, this approach leads to professional collaboration and discussion, which will connect what you’re learning at convention to your work back at your school. By moving through the crowds with a convention veteran, you’ll be on a fast track to greater collective efficacy.

The second method: Find out which sessions your colleagues are planning to attend and then be where they aren’t.

“Strike off in a new direction and take a temporary break from the people you work with every day,” Grassick says.

“Your professional practice can be significantly transformed when you step outside your comfort zone and put yourself in a learning situation that’s totally new.”

On that note, don’t just look for convention sessions focused on the subject areas that you teach. Look for seminars led by education researchers and by Association presenters, Grassick suggests.

Improving the profession

Teachers’ conventions have been held since the late 1800s — before Alberta was a province. They’ve had several iterations over the years. Originally organized by individual teachers working in the Northwest Territories, then by the provincial government, convention planning was passed to the Association in 1942 as a result of the new Teaching Profession Act, which made the Association responsible for improving teachers and the teaching profession.

Teachers’ conventions used to be held in the fall, focusing on policy debates, local meetings and emergent issues. Over the years, conventions gradually became conference-style events aimed at providing workshops on curriculum and pedagogy.

Although the events have changed significantly over the past 120 years, their spirit remains unchanged. Conventions continue to provide two days for the province’s teachers to gather together to hear about new education research, consider innovative pedagogical practices and discuss issues of professional concern.

For teachers in more remote locations, conventions are an opportunity to liaise with others who teach the same grades or specialize in the same subjects. Grassick, for example, was the only Grade 8 science teacher at his school in Calgary, so the annual convention was a chance to network with other junior high science teachers.

“You’re really finding your people when you go to conventions,” he says.

The School Act identifies the days on which teachers’ conventions are held as “teaching days,” Association president Greg Jeffery explains, and that’s why attendance is mandatory for active members. Contractual and legal obligations aside,

Jeffery says conventions are also a heck of a good deal.
“Your local is paying between $75 and $115 for you to attend two days of professional development. I don’t think you’ll find a deal like that anywhere else.”

By comparison, conferences of a similar size and scope typically have registration fees in the $300 to $400 range.

At one time the ATA had more than 24 teachers’ conventions occurring at or around the same time. One of the reasons why the number was reduced to the current 10 was so the president could attend them all. This was a topic of hot debate at annual representative assemblies in the 1960s and 70s, and it has since become the norm for the president to speak at each convention.

Under review

This year, watch for teachers’ convention focus groups, as the Association is reviewing the mandate, structure, governance, operation and programming of teachers’ conventions. The last review of this kind occurred in 2003.

“The last review was during the height of the Blockbuster Video era, before YouTube, before iPhones, before Twitter,” Grassick says. “Teaching and learning have changed a lot since 2003.”
The current review will help conventions meet the needs of members as new professional quality standards are released and new programs of study are developed.

No matter what changes lie ahead for teachers’ conventions, Grassick says they will continue to provide teachers with an opportunity to reconnect with their colleagues, revitalize their creative energies and renew their sense of professional purpose.

“Conventions have always been and will continue
to be a core component of teachers’ ongoing professional development.” ❚

Teacher convention myth-busting

Myth: Teachers’ conventions are organized by school boards.

Reality: The Association provides the professional development. The convention associations do the direct planning. School boards are bound by the School Act to provide the time for conventions.