How TeachMeetNashville Started and How to Start Your Own

At the beginning of January, I was just a library media specialist; I was not a conference planner. Between all that my job entailed, my second job, and being a husband and father, who would have time for such things? The honest answer is one that surprised me greatly: anyone. I say this because I, with help from other educators and sponsors, have managed to pull together a 2-day conference filled with great educators. If I can do it, so can you. Don’t believe me? Read on to hear my story and find out how you can do the same.

I first heard about the idea of a TeachMeet Conference in the second to last week of January. I spent part of my free time that week investing what TeachMeet is and kicking around ideas with other teachers on Twitter, most notably @msmithpdswho lives 3 hours from me and has been a great help throughout the process. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of TeachMeet, please see my first post about wanting to organize one from January 20. There is another great group of educators doing something similar in Philadelphia with EdCamp Philly on April 22nd, including @kjarrett, @mbteach, @kristenswanson, and others. (They were smart enough to seek help before starting to plan though; definitely a lesson I’ve learned for next time.) By the end of that week, I decided I wanted to move the idea to actuality. I believe TeachMeet Nashville is the first TeachMeet conference on this side of the Atlantic; if I am wrong, please let me know in the comments and I’ll make a correction.

My first step was to find a venue. I live in Clarksville, TN; while there are about 100,000 residents. I didn’t feel it was a large enough city to hold a successful, statewide conference. So, I started looking at venues in Nashville, TN, which is only an hour from me. Nashville is a well-known and fairly central location. Most of the conference venues are astronomically priced. I decided to hold it at the Nashville Public Library. I have been there for conferences in the past. It is intimate (read: a fairly small venue) and everyone I have dealt with there has been accommodating. As a fellow librarian and non-profit, they were able to give me a discount, so both days of the conference cost only $750 to host.

Once we had a venue in mind, I created a website on Wikispcea: http://teachmeetnashville.wikispaces.com. I want to buy a domain, but I didn’t have the funds for hosting at the time, so I built a site on Wikispaces which has grown steadily ever since. It is vital to any conference, particularly an ed tech conference, to have an online presence.

The next step is where things get a little tricky. I’m a school librarian. I don’t have $750. I tried for two weeks to call and email anyone I could think of. Finally, I got a $150 sponsorship from Abc-Clio and a $500 sponsorship from Ingram Library Services. That is not enough money. Tom Barrett, an influential educator from England who has been involved with successful TeachMeet conferences in the past, found out about what I was trying to do. He offered his support and offered to help if he could. I was literally two days from returning my 2 sponsors’ money and cancelling the conference when I got an offer of a $1000 and $1000 in prizes from Techsmith (makers of Jing and Camtasia Studio). From that point, sponsors could see that other sponsors saw value in the conference and they started to as well. I appreciate the risk they are taking on a first-year conference with a first-time presenter. All told, we ended up with a budget of nearly $4000.

My next big hurdle was finding good speakers. Since my major goal is to give teachers a place to learn and share, I expected most of my speakers to be other educators. However, I wanted a great keynote to draw people in. I had the perfect people in mind. First, I called Deron Durflinger from Van Meter, Iowa. He agreed in principal to come down with his superintendent John C Carver and the district wide library media specialist Shannon M Miller. They are doing some really amazing things in their district and I know that they will be a positive influence on the participants of the conference. Then, as time progressed and I had a little more sponsorship money, I realized I might be able to afford a closing keynote speaker. For the record, by afford, I mean cover travel costs. All the presenters are volunteers. No one, especially myself, is paid anything. I started looking at other teachers I respect on Twitter and I came to Steven Anderson (@web20classroom. He had two main advantages: he is an outstanding educator and the influential founder of the #edchat discussion, and he lives in nearby North Carolina, so he might actually be willing to come. It turned out, he was enthusiastic and agreed almost instantly. I am very much looking forward to his presentation.

Once sponsorship checks started to come in, I needed a place to put them. For several reasons, I did not want to mix sponsorship checks with my own personal bank account. I did not even want a separate bank account in my name. After some research, I called the IRS and in 15 minutes had the conference setup as a non-profit organization. After some arguing and three trips to the bank, I was able to setup a business checking account for the conference so none of the money was actually ever in my account.

Another non-negotiable item for me is providing free lunch. Teachers generally are not millionaires. In addition to a great environment, I wanted to provide both free admission and free refreshments. This brought about its own problems. Every catering company in Nashville would have charged us between $2000-3000 for 300 people (I am budgeting for my attendance ceiling). After two weeks of having myself and my wife investigate, I called GFS Marketplace. It is actually a partner in education with the school where I work. They were amazing. Between donations, discounts, and insight, they have managed to help me provide breakfast items (coffee, tea, and some pastries) and a full lunch to 300 for 2 days for about $1000. My wife and I will have to do quite a bit of work to setup during the day, but we are able to provide free lunch to everyone who wants to come.

Another important draw for any conference is door prizes. When I started planning for the conference, I had the vision of giving away an iPod Touch and a netbook, as they are tools a teacher can use right away in the classroom. Until last week, it didn’t look like I was going to have the budget to do all that, so I started asking sponsors if they would like to donate a prize along with their money. The amazing thing is, some sponsors even sought me out. The prizes I have below are all donations or bought with donated funds:

  • An Acer 10.1” netbook with Windows 7
  • An iPod Touch
  • An Amazon Kindle
  • A Flip Video Camera
  • A Wiimote Interactive Whiteboard
  • 5 copies of Camtasia Studio for Windows or Mac
  • 1 school-wide subscription to Starrmatica
  • 2 subscriptions to Soundzabound’s volume 5 database
  • 1 subscription to Mackin’s database Journey Back in Time

Everything seems to be coming together at this point. There are only two things missing: speakers and participants. Those things are actually fairly important to a conference, so I started to get to work. While I am narrating this in linear fashion, everything you are reading was all being taken care at the same time. To find speakers and presenters, I started advertising on Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere else I could. I emailed every teacher I know. I invited anyone within 4 hours of Nashville on Twitter and many who were much further out. I asked influential teachers I know to help advertise about it. I called and/or emailed nearly every professional development coordinator, IT director, and superintendent in Middle TN. I also called and emailed districts in east and west TN, as well as parts of KY, AL, and GA. This was the most time consuming part of the whole process.

Some people declined, many ignored, some agreed to come, some even agreed to give small presentations. There are 4 people who I consider part of my inner-circle in regards to this conference: Melissa Smith, Nancy Blair, Sweetie Berry, and Philip Cummings. These four people agreed to take on a variety of roles and help with ideas and presentations as well. I may be trying to put the pieces together, but they’re the glue. If I were to give any advice, it would be to find people who you can work well with early on and share the load with them. It will make life easier and the conference better.

Now, all that is left is for the conference to take place. It is April 1-2 at the Nashville Public Library from 10-4. Melissa Smith is helping me with computers and webcams to stream the conference live on Ustream. Check Twitter and the official website the day of the conference for the links. I am also planning on bringing a few Flip video cameras (my library just bought six) and creating a conference documentary.

I would greatly encourage anyone toying with the idea to give it some serious consideration. Then, when common sense gets the best of you, I encourage you to do it anywhere. I would love to see this idea propogate. If you look at http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/, the listing of all the known TeachMeet conferences, they are very common in England. England is a relatively small country compared to the US (In terms of sheer size.), yet they are successful with this format of conference regularly. We can have these annually in every state and still have full attendance at all of them. If you need any help or a presenter for your conference, I would be glad to help if I can since this conference only happened because of all the help that I have received.

  • Keith Wadley

    Wow, great job, Jason. The sheer experience of putting this thing together will help you for years to come. I have never coordinated anything of this magnitude but I used to coordinate various trips for my unit while in the military to include securing attach aircraft for our training missions. It was fun and stressful all at the same time. I wonder what this would look like on a smaller level as you suggested for getting the community involved with our school, specifically my classes? I have to write a paper on it.

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Thanks Keith,

    I didn’t realize you were in the military. I guess I just thought you went right from college to teaching. Fun and stressful definitely describe it well; sometimes more stress than fun, but I think it’ll be worth it.
    I think it could be fun to get something together for the school. If we could get 50 business people/community members to setup in the gym, we could bring all the CTE classes down for a trade show of sorts. Make them accessible for students to talk to and have some give short presentations on what they really do. Another option that my online friend Tomaz Lasic came up with is having the students throw a Web 2.0 expo where the students would demonstrate tools teachers could use online and try to get teachers to use them. What’s the paper about exactly?

  • Pingback: Reflections on TeachMeet Nashville | Jason T Bedell

  • Danny Maas

    Congratulations Jason for having the courage and vision to see this through! It is very inspiring indeed and makes me want to organize one in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada! Congratulations as well to the dedicated core who helped run this event!
    .-= Danny Maas´s last blog ..TILT – Create a Classroom Magazine with PowerPoint =-.

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Thanks Danny. Don’t hesitate to start one in Edmonton. It is very doable and well worth the effort.

  • Debra Gottsleben

    Jason if you decide to do one in NJ I can not only help but hopefully attend as well! Who knows maybe I could present!

  • Pingback: #EdcampSantiago: Harnessing “The Power of ‘Edcamps’ and ‘Unconferencing’” | Edcamp Santiago

  • Pingback: In the beginning « TeachMeet Portland

  • Pingback: Starting a New Project « Procrastadabbler