A Gift I Give Myself by Julie Potvin Kirchner

When I got home from NCTE last November, there were several colleagues surprised to hear I had paid for the entire trip, with the exception of the cost to cover a reserve teacher, out of my own pocket. They wondered how and why I would choose to do this. The reasons are many and continue to grow with each conference I attend. The how came a few years ago from a newfound desire to grow professionally and a re-commitment to make that happen.


I first heard about Nerdy Book Club at a two day Donalyn Miller workshop I attended, sponsored by my building professional development committee. I hadn’t taken much time for PD since my son had been born, but after reading The Book Whisperer, I was excited to meet Donalyn in person. I remember those two days left me wanting more, feeling inspired, and excited to try new things with my students. I had just spent two of the most glorious days of summer inside soaking up PD rather than sunshine, and instead of feeling disappointed or robbed of my vacation days, I felt rejuvenated. I immediately signed up to receive the Nerdy Book Club blog posts and I began using Twitter more regularly, following people suggested by Donalyn and a new friend, @patrickontwit, I met at the workshop.

Donalyn came back to Minnesota in December. I signed up for her workshop and used PD funds I could have used to work on curriculum planning for my classroom. When I made a decision to use the PD funds in this way, I was one of the few who chose to do so. We work hard as teachers and any time we are able to receive payment for work we do beyond the regular school day is appreciated. But I had decided the enthusiasm I felt after attending the summer workshop invigorated my teaching and I was excited to continue building on that excitement.


It was after the second workshop I attended that I completely refocused my priorities with regard to my professional growth. I began reading more blogs, purchasing professional books to read and add to my personal collection, and I decided to redirect my teaching bonuses earned through our alternative compensation program to pay for additional workshops and conferences I wanted to attend.


While I could probably apply for building and district funds to cover some of the conferences, I would be much more limited as to how often I would be able to go and there are just not enough funds to allow teachers to travel to national conferences. When NCTE was in my hometown of Minneapolis, our district did pay the one day conference fee and covered the substitute for one elementary teacher to attend and I was lucky to be chosen for this opportunity. I paid the rest of the registration fee in order to attend the entire conference which extended through the weekend.


For the past few years I have funneled my bonuses, and if I am being honest some additional funds, into workshops and conferences and some of my colleagues have asked me why I would choose to do this. My first response is that I have an incredibly supportive husband who understands how much I enjoy learning and growing. I follow this up with explaining a bit of what I get back from these experiences:


  • I have met incredible friends in person that I had only connected with online. They inspire and challenge me to be a better teacher and human being.
  • Some of my most successful teaching moments have been inspired by conference sessions. Mock Newbery book clubs, #bookaday, Skypes with authors, The 40 Book Challenge, and all sorts of ways to get kids excited about reading have come from attending conferences and connecting with my PLN online.
  • Each time I get the opportunity to see and hear one of my teaching mentors speak, I am moved to action. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines when I notice things that could be made better. They give me the courage to stand up. I know I am never alone because I have their support.
  • Listening to authors and illustrators share their journey to publication often brings me to tears and I bring that humanity back to my classroom and into our library. The hashtag #authorsaremyrockstars is deeply etched on my heart. My hope is I can make that a reality for my students as well. When I connect with authors and illustrators at conferences, I bring back stories and swag, autographed copies of books, and opportunities to connect my students through virtual and in person visits. These connections have become absolutely priceless to me.
  • Spending time with authors over meals or at conference meet ups has made a huge impression on me. Listening to their personal stories adds a deeper connection to their books. Hearing the gratitude they have for educators who put the books into students’ hands has been incredibly impactful. I see their face, hear their voice and feel their hug when I place their book in the hands of a reader. It’s a powerful moment each and every time.
  • Conferences are often a long road trip from my home or even a plane ride away. I schedule my travel plans around my work and family life which might mean late flights and lost sleep. I still choose to get up early to attend every possible session, stay the entire day so I don’t miss a single moment, take very few breaks because I hate having regrets about a missed opportunity, and love the face to face fun with educators, authors and friends that go late into the evenings. These are long, exhausting days, and yet, I come home energized, empowered, and invigorated. There is no feeling quite like it.
  • Perhaps the greatest gift I get back from attending these conferences is love. Love for reading, love for literacy, love for the world and love for each other. When my heart feels heavy and I need uplifting, I surround myself, virtually or in person, with people I have met through Nerdy Book Club and my heart is always made lighter and I am filled with hope. This is the true power of books, reading, and the connection with people who have found their way home through Nerdy.


I realize setting personal funds aside to attend conferences could create a hardship for many educators and may not be a realistic goal. While district PD funds are often limited, I encourage teachers to talk to administration about attending conferences. It is important for administrators to advocate for their staff and find ways to financially support them in their desire to attend conferences. Look for opportunities closer to home and start small. Share the benefits and your enthusiasm of attending with your principal. Offer to lead building PD using what you have learned. Invite admin to attend a conference that you are excited about. Get their support to submit an application to present at a conference. Are there alternate ways to fund your attendance at a conference? Perhaps there are grants available and you don’t know about them…yet.


Attending conferences is a gift. It is a gift I give myself and I deserve it. We all do. I hope to meet you at a conference someday. I will be the one with the smile a mile wide and a happy, contented heart.


Julie Potvin Kirchner has been teaching since 1994 and began teaching in her current school district in 1997. After many years as a classroom teacher, she is beyond excited to be in a new position as Library Media Specialist at Meadow Ridge Elementary in Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Besides reading, her other great passion is travel. She lives with her husband, son, and her reading companion lapdog Sunshine. She is a proud member of #nerdybookclub, #BookVoyage crew, ALA/AASL, NCTE and ILA. You can follow her on Twitter @KirchnerJulie.