If you hear the word conference and immediately think of a line of parents waiting outside your classroom to discuss report cards, think bigger.

Local, regional, and national education conferences are a great way to push your practice and recharge your batteries. Conferences allow you to step outside the four walls of your classroom—both literally and figuratively—and learn about the latest trends in education. Looking to connect with like-minded teachers and meet researchers in the field? Conferences can provide those opportunities, too! Our super-practical tips will help with everything from choosing useful sessions to scoring the best swag.

Connect before you go. Josh Stumpenhorst, a sixth-grade social science and language arts teacher in Naperville, Illinois, uses social media to find other teachers attending the same conference, then starts up a conversation online. “So when you meet in person for the first time, it’s not awkward,” he says. “It’s not, ‘I don’t know who to reach out to.’”

➻ Insider Secret: To connect with other attendees online, print your Twitter handle and e-mail address on your name badge. Some conferences also host Tweetups for Twitter users to meet face to face.

Seek out multiple ­sources of funding. Conferences can cost hundreds of dollars, plus travel expenses. Teri Lesesne, a library science professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas—and a former middle school teacher who has been attending education conferences for decades—recommends asking your school administration and local parent–teacher group for financial assistance, as well as applying for scholarships doled out by conference organizers. “Sometimes you can find a little money here and there,” she says.

➻ Insider Secret: Want to enter every raffle in the exhibitors’ hall without slowing down (or getting a hand cramp)? Print off several pages  of mailing labels with your school contact info.

Know your goals. Don’t pick a conference—or an individual session—just because it sounds interesting. Make sure you’ll be able to use what you learn in your classroom. “It has to complement what you’re working on with your kids,” says Christy Valyou, an elementary reading specialist in Geneva, Illinois.

Susan Race, a senior director at the education nonprofit ASCD, notes that there are “two different breeds” of conferences—those that focus chiefly on one topic, and those that cover a wider array of subjects. It’s important to think about which type will meet your needs. “Those are different conferences, and you come away with a different experience,” she says.

➻ Insider Secret: Sometimes the best sessions are all scheduled at lunchtime. Have a snack handy!

Involve your students. Susan German, a middle school science teacher in Hallsville, Missouri, says one of her colleagues asked her students to help her pick out her conference sessions. She then brought back materials from the sessions to share. But don’t let students plan everything! “The kids created quite a punishing schedule and didn’t provide many break times,” German laughs.

Don’t try to do it all. Bob Dandoy, a former secondary teacher who works with teachers as an instructor at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, says conference novices sometimes feel like they need to show up first thing in the morning and attend every session. “That’s crazy,” he says. “You’ll burn out and not have any energy.

➻ Insider Secret: Comfy shoes are key to a successful conference. You’ll be walking a lot!

Attend the newcomers session. Lots of conferences set aside an early session to show conference rookies the ropes. “Having someone guide you through the program and help you set up a schedule for yourself, that’s very helpful,” says Peggy Carlisle, a gifted-education teacher in Jackson, Mississippi. Plus, these sessions are the perfect place to meet other first-timers. 

➻ Insider Secret: Conference centers and hotels are notorious for setting the air-conditioning at arctic levels. Bring a sweater.

Network like it’s your job (because it is!). Teachers may not be used to hobnobbing at cocktail parties for work, but social hours can be a vital part of conferences. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been at a bar with teachers, where we’re talking about something we heard that day at a session,” Stumpenhorst says. 

Get organized. The information you collect at a conference can be overwhelming. To keep it all straight, Lesesne takes photos of handouts with her iPad and jots down notes next to them. Don’t have a tablet? Lesesne recommends gluing the handouts into a journal and taking notes on the opposite page.

➻ Insider Secret: The totes provided by conference organizers are usually flimsy. Bring a sturdy messenger bag or backpack to carry freebies while you’re browsing the convention floor.

Divide and conquer. If you attend a conference with other people from your school, spread out to cover more territory and then share your findings later. “It makes no sense to bring three people and all sit in the same sessions,” says Stumpenhorst.

Don’t skip the sites. Sure, you’re at the conference to learn, but how often will you be in Seattle or New York? Besides, everybody needs a break. “Make some plans,” says Susan Schirmer, who helps coordinate conferences as an official at Heartland Area Education Agency in Iowa. “Give yourself some ­downtime.”

Don’t be afraid to walk out of a session. If a panel or workshop turns out to be irrelevant to you, it’s not impolite to leave and find another one. “You’ve got only so many sessions you can attend, so you have to make your time work for you,” says Jennifer Orr, a first-grade teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. 

Be a tagalong. Don’t be afraid to stick around after a session is over to chat with a presenter—even if you have to follow her out of the room while the next presenter sets up. “I have never experienced a presenter who didn’t want to answer your questions or make a contact,” says Sandy Hayes, an eighth-grade English teacher in Becker, Minnesota.

➻ Insider Secret: On the last day of the conference, vendors desperately unload products they don’t want to carry home. Books that cost $20 on Friday morning in the exhibitors’ hall may be marked down to $5 by Sunday afternoon, so make one last visit!

Self-debrief. When you get home, sort through your notes to see how you can implement what you’ve learned. Lesesne likes to create a chart with three columns: one for things she can do right away, one for things she’d like to do in the next semester, and one for topics she wants to learn more about.

Dandoy says that “probably the biggest challenge” for teachers is finding a way to keep their conference learning in mind once they’re back in their classrooms. “You have to contend with everything you always contend with, and clean up the mess from the couple of days that you missed. It takes time to implement those new ideas.”

➻ Insider Secret: Bring an empty travel suitcase to take home the books, posters, notebooks, and other paraphernalia you’ll pick up. 

Stand and Deliver  

Are you already a pro at attending conferences? Maybe it’s time to take the next step and become a presenter. Here are some foolproof ways to make sure that your first time behind the podium is a slam dunk.

Be Confident. So you’ve never written a book, and you don’t have five advanced degrees? So what? You’re an expert on your own practice, and if you present your ideas with confidence, other teachers will be just as excited to hear from you as from the boldfaced names. “The worst sessions are by these quote-unquote experts who have a lot of theory and a lot of jargon but haven’t been in a classroom,” Stumpenhorst says. “When you say, ‘I did this last Thursday,’ that holds so much more weight.”

Make your session interactive. Nervous about standing up and talking for an hour? Then don’t do it! Instead, give participants time to ask questions, complete activities, and talk to one another. “The more you can talk to somebody about what you’re thinking, the better you’re going to be able to process it and turn around and do something with it,” Orr says.

Keep it casual. Remember that you're speaking to an audience of your peers, which is quite different from your usual crowd of students. “Talk to the teachers,” Dandoy suggests. “Don’t just read your PowerPoint slides.”

Don’t panic if people leave. A couple of people walking out of a session doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. Don't take it personally. “I try to think about the fact that maybe this just wasn’t what they needed at this moment,” says Orr.

Show off your students. Bring a video from your classroom or some exemplary student work samples, or just tell the audience what your kids have said about the topic you’re discussing. “The more what I’m saying comes from my students, the more teachers are going to be interested,” Orr says.