To be perfectly honest, I joined the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) in 2012 because I wanted to go to Las Vegas where the NCTE Convention was going to take place in November. Now before you judge me, what you need to understand is that I didn’t want to go to Las Vegas to play the slots in Win City, or to marvel at Cirque Du Soleil, or to embark in any of the tawdry behavior that makes one pledge that whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I wanted to go to Vegas for perhaps the nerdiest reason of all: I missed my West Coast colleagues and friends, who I erroneously assumed would be attending the conference. Joining CEL seemed to be a genius way to extend our time together at NCTE.
Of course, I use the word nerdy, lovingly. Teaching, at its finest, is a collaborative and cooperative endeavor; we grow exceedingly close to those with whom we work. In 2012 I had recently relocated from a small independent school in Oregon to a small independent school in New York. Although I grew up in New York and it has always been the place I call home, it was disorienting to return after having lived for a decade in other parts of the country. My return to New York was filled with the reunion of beloved family and friends who nurtured most aspects of my life, but anyone who has ever taught knows that your professional life at times becomes your entire life. And it was in my professional life in NY that I felt a bit out of step and alone. So attending the NCTE-CEL Annual Convention, seemed like the perfect chance to reconnect with old colleagues, the friends with whom I could reveal the dirty laundry, so to speak, of my curriculum and pedagogy and who could help me without judgment and without repercussion (when one works in a private school without the protections of tenure there is always a sense that one false move could be the end of your career). This was a brilliant plan to reunite with my Oregon friends in Vegas except for one tiny problem: I was the only one who could get funding to attend the conference. Thus, I went to Vegas, alone.*
Except this is what I learned in Vegas, when you join CEL, you are never alone.
What makes CEL so different from other organizations is that its annual convention is purposefully designed to be small. NCTE is a mammoth organization with a spectacular, but overwhelming conference with ballrooms bursting full of eager participants and a seemingly unlimited list of sessions occurring concurrently. Each special event requires an RSVP and a bit of pre-planning in terms of allocating additional funds. The CEL Convention was a welcome respite from the bustle of NCTE. With its endearing Hospitality Committee that immediately greets and identifies newcomers, someone has taken the time to seek you out and make sure that they get to know you beyond your name badge.
It is becoming increasingly rare for a convention to include meals within the cost of registration, but this is where CEL gets it right. Food is community, and at CEL, you have several opportunities to eat with the entire conference while listening to dynamic keynote speakers. This inclusive design encourages more quality conversations among participants because everyone has broken bread together and participated in the same keynote sessions. A particularly wonderful feature of the conference are the facilitated dinners where several veteran members of CEL each choose a restaurant and participants have the option of signing up to a join a group and either make new friends or reunite with others. One of the worst things about attending a conference for the first time can be a solo evening meal in a strange city far from your loved ones, but at that very first night of CEL you are instantly among friends.
CEL has a wonderful intergenerational quality and what perhaps most impresses me about the organization is its commitment to fostering leadership among its novice members. They offer an incredible Emerging Leaders Fellowship, which I was privileged to receive, that offers registration remission and two-year long support with an inspiring mentor. There is an active effort to recruit members from a variety of different types of institutions and across various geographical spaces. Moreover CEL’s embrace of educational technology extends the walls of the conference to a continuous thread of discussion during Thursday #litlead chats, curated #CEL conference tweets, and our blog. The inclusion of educational technologies allow us to not only connect with educators nationwide, but to better understand what’s going on in the classrooms that are physically close to you, sometimes even in your own building.
This November will mark my third CEL Convention. Where I am excited to learn how to become a more effective and empathetic leader in our collaborative world, what I am, secretly, most excited about is connecting with my CEL colleagues, who in a very short space of time, have become old friends.
Gina Sipley (@gsipley)
Instructor of Reading and Basic Education
Nassau Community College