This past month, I presented at the Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network Conference. It was incredible to see how many educators and parents showed up to learn more about how to positively impact the lives of their autistic students and loved ones.
After practicing together for weeks on Zoom after our own kids went to bed, my co-presenter and I led a presentation titled “Practical and Environmental Strategies for the Inclusive Pre-K Classroom” showing how small environment changes can support neurodivergent students. We honed in on helpful classroom tips and combined our knowledge of best practices for supporting all students into just one hour’s worth of content.
When the conference rolled around, we knew our stuff. Yet when it came time for our session, I was so nervous and my voice quavered as I approached the microphone. I can talk to kids all day but realized I had never spoken out loud to so many well-educated people in my life. What if they thought the presentation we worked so hard on was not applicable to their classrooms?
Suddenly as I was speaking, I locked eyes with a kind face in the front row.
She was nodding, smiling, and taking notes as I spoke, totally locked in on the words we were saying. With each minute that passed, I gained more courage to speak with confidence. It still wasn’t perfect, but I was less jittery with every head nod from the front row. My words and my voice mattered because someone was actively listening.
After the presentation, the woman from the front row came up to us. She told us that she herself had presented at many big conferences and knew it was calming if someone in the front row was smiling and nodding. She said she wanted to pass on some of the courage she had been given from people in the audience at her own presentations. I thanked her profusely and just stood there in awe for a minute after she walked away. She had purposefully positioned herself to be a light for someone else because she had been in our shoes.
My co-presenter and I then attended other sessions and followed her example.
We sat in the front row. We nodded and smiled. We asked questions. We positioned ourselves to spread courage to other educators—to cheer them on. We had been in their shoes and knew how much work had gone into their presentations long after the school dismissal bell had rung.
Here’s the thing …
Every teacher is tired. Me included. I know that attending an education conference is a chance for us to just breathe for a minute outside of the classroom. It can be tempting to space out, check your email, or get ahead on the next project.
But education conferences also offer this: a perfect opportunity to lean in and listen to other educators share their expertise. Looking out into the audience during our presentation, we saw many people who may have been listening. But the woman in the front row made it clear: What matters to you also matters to me.
A big takeaway I got from the conference was that educators everywhere need some encouragement right now. From audience questions about extreme behaviors to conversations during breaks about low morale, it was clear to me that we all need someone cheering us on. We need support from the public and our own networks of friends and family, to be sure.
But maybe most importantly, we need support from the only people who know what this work is like, from the ones who have been in our shoes.
We need other educators to listen, whether we’re presenting at a state conference or crying in the teachers lounge. We need to cheer each other on, to celebrate each other’s victories, both big and small.
We need to show each other what matters to you matters to me.