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Conference funded by ESSER III helps Kansas teachers connect, learn

Posted: Apr 26, 2022
Categories: KSDE
Author: Ann Bush

Nominations now being accepted for next Kansas LEADS Conference in June

Connection, laughter and learning were all a part of the first Kansas LEADS (Linking Educators Across Districts) Conference that took place earlier this month in the Wichita area. This free event geared toward educators of all grade levels and content areas was the first in a series of conferences that will take place during the next three years, organizers said.

“The original plan was to try and hit every school community in the state – have someone from each community attend one in the next three years,” said Dyane Smokorowski, coordinator of digital literacy at Wichita Unified School District 259 and an event organizer.

Kansas LEADS was created with $300,000 from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III fund. The event planning committee budgeted about $30,000 for each conference. The plan is to have two conferences per year in 2022, 2023 and 2024. The cost of the conference, along with meals and lodging, are covered by Kansas LEADS. However, mileage costs are the responsibility of the attendee.

The idea for the conference stemmed from a conversation among members of Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson’s Teacher Advisory Committee. Discussion focused on the need for educators to reconnect after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were talking about connecting teachers and retaining teachers,” said Sam Neill, an English language arts and journalism teacher at Buhler High School, Buhler USD 313, and also an event organizer. “Our first thought was that we need to get people connected across the state. If we could get teachers together and really do something collaborative, it would help with morale. It’s really easy as a teacher to be isolated in your classroom, and I don’t think anyone does their best work when they have to do it alone all of the time.”

A core group of educators began planning for the April conference in November 2021.

Preservice teachers, as well as public and private school teachers (pre-K-12) are invited to attend the conferences.

“This is an amazing conference planned and hosted by some of the best educators in our state,” said Danielle Espinosa, an instructional technology coach at Mayberry Cultural and Fine Arts Magnet Middle School in Wichita who attended the April conference. “Teachers laughing and learning together is the absolute best thing we can do for our Kansas schools. Being able to laugh with and learn from our fellow Kansas educators is the true magic of education and lifelong learning. I’ve never been to a more productive and fulfilling professional development session. Attending this conference reignited my passion for education, and I feel restored after being in survival mode from adapting to two years of pandemic schooling situations.”

The first conference took place April 8-9 in Wichita and Andover. The event kicked off with registration, dinner, an improv comedy show, networking and an hour of playtime at Exploration Place in Wichita. On Saturday, conference attendees gathered at Andover High School for a keynote presentation from Tabatha Rosproy, the 2020 Kansas Teacher of the Year and 2020 National Teacher of the Year. Here theme was “Building Community Through Play at Any Age: The Power in Joyful Connections.”

Children’s author and illustrator Grant Snider also gave a keynote presentation on how drawing and writing can help students become more engaged.

There also were 45-minute breakout sessions to attend, a question-and-answer session with Watson and an afternoon keynote address from Susanne Stevenson, the 2022 Kansas Teacher of the Year from Dodge City USD 443.

“All of the keynotes, everybody who spoke, all of their messages tied together wonderfully,” said Jennifer Farr, a fifth-grade teacher at Geary County USD 475. “It was almost like we asked each speaker to talk about something that built upon the next one. It was magical, I thought. It exceeded every expectation I had.”

Lan Huynh, an elementary peer consultant at Wichita Unified School District 259, said she attended the conference because she wanted to stay current with education to effectively coach and mentor first-year teachers.

“There were so many things I enjoyed,” Huynh said. “I enjoyed the keynote speakers because they were all so dynamic. I walked away feeling inspired and uplifted. It recharged my teacher soul.”

Many of the things she learned apply to her position as an elementary peer consultant, she said.

“I am excited to share some ideas with my new teachers to help them build, maintain and restore relationships: teacher/students and students/students,” she said. “I’m so grateful for opportunities like these to learn and grow alongside my Kansas educators. The team did an incredible job of planning the conference. I am so proud to be a Kansas educator, and the conference was a true reminder!”

Sarah Cherry, a first-year kindergarten teacher at Ellinwood Grade School, Ellinwood USD 355, said she enjoyed the authentic networking of teachers sharing their experiences.

“The conference coordinators arranged Kansas LEADS in a way to allow for many networking connections to take place fluidly throughout the conference without it feeling forced,” Cherry said. “The keynote speakers and breakout session presenters were inspiring, showed their dedication and drive.”

Not only did attendees leave with renewed passion, so did the organizers.

“I think my biggest takeaway was this renewed hope for our profession,” said Cindy Couchman, superintendent of Buhler USD 313 an event organizer. “It was like the sun had come out from behind the clouds. We were back together after COVID – learning to celebrate together. It was a reset in many people’s minds for why we are in education.”

Smokorowski said: “My heart was so full. Dr. Watson talked about it – teachers are tired. Admins are tired. Superintendents are tired. You could see everyone in the audience start to lean forward and say, ‘You’re talking to me, because I’m tired, too.’ Teachers are hearing directly from Dr. Watson that it is OK to be innovative in your classroom. There is nobody stopping you from being awesome. Teachers look at each other, and, are like, ‘Wait, you mean I don’t have to close the door and be awesome? I can open the door and be awesome?’”

The conferences are open to “anyone who is looking to be renewed, to be lifted up, to grow their craft,” Neill said.

Nominations are now being accepted for the June 3-4, 2022, conference in the KC Metro area. Educators can be nominated or self-nominate, organizers said. The June conference agenda will be similar to the April conference, with many of the same speakers, organizers said. For more information or to make a nomination, visit Kansas Leads (mystrikingly.com).

“After the completion of the first Kansas LEADS Conference, I feel more connected to fellow educators and more passionate about education than ever,” Espinosa said. “I also find myself being more reflective as an educator to do better and be better for my teachers, students, school and community.”

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