Last week, I attended my very first NEERO conference.
Seems a strange thing to say about a conference I have gone to 31 times since April 1989 when I made that very same drive over the Piscataqua River Bridge on I-95 from Maine to New Hampshire, took Exit 7 near the bottom of the bridge, and made the short drive along the riverfront toward the salt pile and the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel.
At that 1989 conference, like so many other graduate students over the years, I presented my dissertation research in a dry run for the defense that would follow in the fall.
I’ve been to 22 of the 23 NEERO conferences held at the Sheraton Portsmouth since then, plus the four held in Massachusetts (Northampton (2), Hyannis, New Bedford), the two in Maine (Rockport, Portland), and my personal favorite at Mt. Snow in Vermont. And we cannot forget the virtual conference in 2021.
And at each and every one of the other NEERO conferences prior to last week I either presented, discussed, facilitated, or managed something. For several years, I had Carlos, our event manager at the Sheraton on speed dial – back when speed dial was a thing.
Even at the 2021 virtual conference, well into the pandemic and my retirement, I chaired a symposium; originally proposed in the fall of 2019 to be the culmination of my 30 years spent thinking about classroom teachers’ assessment literacy.
From 1989 through 2019 I made the New England Educational Research Organization (NEERO) and the Sheraton Portsmouth my home. And judging from the pile of bins, boxes, overhead projectors, and brass bingo drum sitting in my basement I also made my home NEERO.
It can feel strange going back. My mentor at NEERO warned me about this years ago. I have witnessed it over the years at other conferences. I have felt it myself at MCAS TAC meetings as we moved one more year or one more assessment director further away from the program that consumed me from 1999 through 2002.
Sometimes you get the feeling that you cannot go back even before you leave a place.
But last week, for the very first time at NEERO, all I had to do was attend.
For the first time, I was on the other side of the registration table picking up my name badge and ribbons. I was tempted to take a ‘First Time Attendee’ ribbon but didn’t. At the reception, I didn’t have to take candid photos or hand out the “extra” drink tickets. I just had to mingle at the reception (much more awkward). And I could actually attend sessions (in-person and virtual), sit back, and listen.
At the now traditional Friday morning panel discussion, I watched the transition to NEERO’s second 50 years become complete as a trio of very distinguished panelists, NEERO royalty all, reflected on their careers and the future of education and educational research as they retire this year from academia.
Many of the sessions and the two keynote addresses were focused on issues related to the timely conference theme, Expanding Equity in Educational Research. I heard fresh and varied perspectives on problems that have challenged education and generations of educational researchers. I am hopeful that this generation of young, passionate researchers will be able to find the solutions they seek, and we so desperately need.
And that’s the thing about going back to NEERO. The thing that brought me back year after year since 1989.
NEERO is hope. NEERO nurtures hope. NEERO generates hope.
Not hope in the sense of blind faith or wishful thinking that things will get better. Rather the dictionary definition of hope as a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen; and grounds for believing that something good may happen because of people with passion, commitment, and skills to make it happen.
About half of the attendees each year are graduate students and a good percentage of those are first-time attendees. The first bullet point in NEERO’s Mission Statement states that NEERO aims to “provide a stimulating, supportive, and friendly forum for presentations.”
On the current website, NEERO’s Mission Statement ends in the middle of the word “research”. I choose to view that as a deliberate choice rather than a typo.
A signal that educational research, NEERO, and all of us are in a constant state of renewal. Nothing is static. Nothing is finished.
It’s the same with the world around us. Two of the three bridges that are part of the scenic view outside of the Sheraton Portsmouth have been replaced since 1989, including the one depicted in the image accompanying this post, but the scenic view remains. And the third bridge was reconstructed over the last few years without ever being shut down. Renewal.
I go to NEERO each spring seeking renewal.
For now, NEERO still feels like home. I left the conference renewed and refreshed just like the old days – filled with questions, and more importantly, filled with the energy to try to find answers to those questions.
That feeling may fade as I return to the task of decluttering the house or most likely it will be channeled into new blog posts over the next few weeks. There were a few ideas about “means” and “ends” running through my head as I made the short drive back to Maine.
But who knows, perhaps there may even be enough energy to yield a paper and a NEERO presentation next year. I’ve never done at a NEERO research-in-progress roundtable.
It’s nice to know that sometimes you can go home again.
I am already looking forward, God willing, to returning to Portsmouth and the NEERO conference next spring (May 3-5, 2023) – the 25th NEERO conference at the Portsmouth Sheraton.
What do you get an organization and hotel for their silver anniversary?
Header Image: Cover art from the 2001 NEERO Conference Program. Image and NEERO logo by NEERO board member Kelly Clarke/Keefe.