Autumn Energy: Educators Rejuvenate, Collaborate at ESU 11 Fall Conference

Autumn Energy: Educators Rejuvenate, Collaborate at ESU 11 Fall Conference

By Tyler Dahlgren

Renowned motivational speaker Dr. Joe Sanfelippo stood on the stage in Holdrege's The Tassel, a state-of-the-art theatre, and delivered an inspirational message that, by the time it was over, left the 600 Nebraska educators in attendance buzzing with excitement for a day full of professional development.

Sanfelippo, Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, began and ended ESU 11's Fall Conference on Monday, sharing timely messages of controlling classroom narratives and differentiating the perceived journey vs. the actual journey.

"All we want is for our communities to see us for who we are," Dr. Sanfelippo said. "Because who we are is really, really, really good."

After the day-long conference dedicated to collaboration, idea-swapping and the discovery of better practices, Sanfelippo's sentiment as it relates to educators in the ESU 11 area is bound only to ring more true.

"This motivates them to get the year started off better," said ESU 11 Staff Development Director Kate Hatch. "It provides them an opportunity to see what other teachers across the state are doing in their classrooms, and it gives them the chance to hone their own craft a little better."

The fall conference began a dozen years ago, and takes place every other year. In between Sanfelippo's keynote speeches, attendees attend three sessions of breakout sessions (nearly 70 sessions were delivered in all), which are directed by professionals in several fields from throughout the state.

For rural schools in the area, it can be difficult financially to send teachers to large-scale conferences. Professional development, meanwhile, is too important to disregard. Consequently, opportunities like Monday become that much more imperative to educators.

"It just rejuvenates everyone," said Candy Conradt, Superintendent of Franklin Public Schools. "For a smaller district like us, there is no way we could bring in a big-name speaker. We can share the cost this way and we gain so many opportunities as a staff, being able to network with our friends from the area."

Why is professional development so imperative for an educator in 2019? It's simple. Things are changing. Education is evolving. Rarely does a teacher come out of college 100-percent ready to teach.

"We hope they do," said ESU 11 Administrator Greg Barnes. "But at the same time, if you're not improving your skill and improving as an organization and individual, then you're falling behind. It's very important for us to continue to provide opportunities to improve not just our schools but the individuals in our schools, which will have a huge impact on the education we provide."

The theme for this year's conference, which the team at ESU 11 started planning for during the December following the last conference, was "Lead from Within", which is fitting considering Sanfelippo's book entitled Hacking Leadership

"We just wanted to make sure that teachers realize they are leaders," said Hatch. "Sometimes, they don't see themselves necessarily as leaders. Or maybe they just see themselves as leaders in their classrooms. In reality, they are leaders both in their schools and in their communities."

Hatch said the conference is predicated on the needs of the educators. Feedback is extra important as the planners strive to meet those needs, much like they do with all the other services they provide throughout the year.

"Whatever we can do to address what they need, then that's what we do," said Hatch. "We will analyze the feedback from today's conference for the rest of this week, and then we will start brainstorming about who we can plug in for our next conference."

Networking goes a long way for teachers like Clark Vetter, who instructs Industrial Arts at Franklin, the only one to cover that cirriculum in his small district. 

"If I can take even one idea back to the classroom, one thing that is going to make a difference, then the day was a success," Vetter said.

Sometimes, says Bertrand Community School Art Teacher Scott Schwarz, he'll run across an idea through the week that ends up changing the lives of students. Being around 600 colleagues in what Schwarz refers to as a "pep rally-type setting" gives him a platform to spread that classroom-altering idea to other districts.


"The fall conference gives us an opportunity to share these ideas with other teachers, and hopefully allows them to implement some of the things we've been doing in their classrooms, and vice-versa," Schwarz explained. "Maybe it'll even spark another idea for them."

Holding the conference in October, after the adrenaline of a new year has maybe dwindled a bit, helps to reinvigorate the teachers in attendance, said Shari Mues, a second-grade teacher as Arapahoe.

"It inspires you and gets you going again," said the 41-year veteran. "Sometimes, when you teach day after day after day, you just need to be pumped up and to feel good about your work."

After all, the real benefactors here are the students.

"I just love the kids," said Mues. "Each class is totally different. It makes things fun and exciting."

It's natural to get stale, said Carrie Veal, a fifth-grade Language Arts teacher in Holdrege.

"Your enthusiasm can get drudged down in the daily grind of things," she said. "Being here around other colleagues, being able to get fired up and remembering what our mission is as teachers is such a beneficial part of this day. We are here for the kids."

ESU 11, said Barnes, is a service organization. They do what their schools want them to do. If it'll help them, then they'll go to whatever lengths needed to get something done. It's that simple.

"This is just one of those things that our schools want and need," said Barnes. "So we are happy to provide it."

The huge group of educators in Holdrege on Monday showed their appreciation willingly.

"Our ESU, they are so far above average," said Schwarz. "They have supported our teachers in every aspect you can imagine. They are constantly asking what they can do for us. If they see a need, they will go out of their way to try and facilitate a solution."

Mary Schneider is a sixth-grade Mathematics teacher at Holdrege Middle School who has taken numerous classes through ESU 11 to become a better education. She comes to the conference looking to leave with one new idea that will spark her students' interest, and she always does.

"We are always here for the kids and asking ourselves what we can do to be better educators for our students," she said. "At the same time, ESU 11 is always looking out for what is best for us. They are always so helpful in getting us there."

Veal completed all 36 of her credit hours beyond her bachelor's degree at the ESU.

"What Kate and the staff brings in for professional and personal development has been phenomenal and applicaple to my classrooms," she said.

When asked what she hoped attendees take from the conference, Hatch harkened back to something Sanfelippo said in his morning keynote.

"Like Joe said, you are not just a teacher, you ARE A TEACHER, and if you don't go into the classroom with that mentality, then we are not helping the kids as much as we can," she said. "The teachers here are leaders, and they have the capability to impact their classroom. They are the biggest impact of student achievement there is."