ESU 4's Engaging Educators Conference Draws Hundreds of Educators to Peru State

ESU 4's Engaging Educators Conference Draws Hundreds of Educators to Peru State

By Tyler Dahlgren

Nearly 550 educators from Southeast Nebraska assembled on Peru State’s campus last Monday for ESU 4’s Engaging Educators Conference, taking advantage of a one-of-a-kind professional development opportunity.

This year’s event was bigger and better than ever thanks to a new venue and a lineup of more than 85 breakout sessions covering pertinent classroom matters ranging from resiliency to digital learning to special education-and everything in between.

“We hope the teachers leave with something they can use,” said Lori Broady of ESU 4’s Teaching and Learning Team. “We have so many sessions because we want to make sure they can go back to the classroom and use something they learned today.”

Broady knows the value of such opportunities, having spent 23 years teaching social studies at Johnson-Brock.

“I always looked forward to this, and felt rejuvenated going back to the classroom the day after,” she said. "The kids would pick up on it and say 'Oh, you went to one of those conferences again, didn't you?' They knew."

For many years, ESU 4 held a professional development conference, but an increase in needs of services eight years ago led to the discontinuation of the event. For a handful of years, ESU 4 directed all of their focus at serving schools in other ways.

Two-and-a-half years ago, area superintendents asked for the conference again. ESU 4 staff was excited by the request, and began to put out feelers for breakout session presenters and dove into planning.

“We started by reaching out to NDE, because generally they provide really great updates and content areas,” said Jen Madison of ESU 4’s Teaching and Learning Team. “Then Peru State offered several sessions based on their faculty who were participating. We asked teachers we knew about and others based on request.”

Last year, ESU 4 held the conference on a smaller scale at a school district. The sheer number of participants required a more spacious venue, so they reached out to the college.

“We started talking to Peru State as an option, and they have been awesome,” said Madison, who also serves as the Title III Consortium Director for ESU 4. “We worked closely with Dr. Tim Borchers (VP for Academic Affairs) and Dr. Ellie Kunkel (Dean of Education). They moved classes around and have done a lot of the work.”

Peru State’s Alumni Association sponsored a breakfast before morning keynote Kevin Kush took the microphone on the gymnasium floor. There wasn’t an open seat in the house.

When he finished, educators scattered across the campus to their breakout session of choice. NCSA Ambassador Dr. Keith Rohwer held two sessions in the student center, showing the first episode of I Love Public Schools' new docuseries "The Mind Inside" and holding discussions on mental health.

Though organizers worried weather might throw a wrench in the day, snow and cold temperatures didn’t end up being much of a barrier at all. Plenty of time was allotted in between sessions to make it from session to session. Sidewalks and parking lots were paved and transportation wasn't an issue.

“The partnership with Peru State is really important, because it gave us space to offer so many different things we’ve never been able to offer before,” said ESU 4 Director of Special Education Ellen Stokebrand. “I have been involved with this conference for a long time, and this year was probably one of our best lineups ever.”

The unique thing about Engaging Educators is the collaborative atmosphere it harbors. Teachers from the same region with similar experiences are awarded the chance to train together. Ideas are swapped and perspectives are shared. 

“Whether you’re a general education classroom teacher, a special education classroom teacher or a specialist, all of those people are in the rooms at the same time hearing the same information,” said Stokebrand. “It’s a chance for special education teachers to get out of that realm and go to a class about math or reading strategies, and, at the same time, it allows general education teachers to attend a session about the ACEs (Adverse Child Experiences) or behavior.”

Stokebrand sees the conference as a day for teachers to benefit themselves. In return, she said, the day benefits their students. Whether it’s a strategy, a simple recommendation or piece of advice, she hopes attendees take at least one thing from the day back to their respective buildings.

“This is a very collaborative area,” said Madison. “These educators want to work together. It makes sense for them to work together. They all want opportunities.”