Traditional teachers' convention gives students long weekend

MEA conference
An undated photo of MEA members attending a conference.
courtesy Education Minnesota, from the 1999 book

Most school children in Minnesota have Thursday and Friday off, a break that happens every year to coincide with a teachers' convention in St. Paul.

These four days are often called "MEA Weekend," though that name is actually outdated. But outdated or not, the weekend is not just a chance for some teachers to brush up on skills.

Many families have also come to depend on the break as a last-chance to get away before the winter.

The north shore town of Grand Marais hosts the Moose Madness Festival this weekend. It's your chance to make a moose kite, write moose-themed haiku and, if you're lucky and can find him, get your photo with Murray, the town's moose mascot.

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"We will pretty much fill all our lodging facilities with this activity," said Diane Brostrom, who heads the Grand Marais Tourism Association, which hosts the festival.

The reason for that, Brostrom said, is because Moose Madness is always the same weekend as the big four-day weekend. Timing it that way insures businesses will get one last boost at the end of the season.

But for all the getaways about to be had across Minnesota, it's worth noting the actual education-related reason for giving every student a four-day weekend.

Tom Dooher
Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher, speaking to reporters at the Capitol.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Teachers from all over the state will gather at RiverCentre in St. Paul and exchange ideas and hear experts on improving their craft. The conference is hosted by the state's teachers' union, Education Minnesota, and is open to anyone. No registration needed.

"This is really the largest piece where you can get the most information about how you can go back to your class on Monday and start to put into place some practical implications that you learned over the weekend," said Tom Dooher, the union's president.

Attending some sessions will even fulfill state requirements for teachers renewing their licenses.

There's a lot of history here - the first teachers' convention was held in Rochester, during a muggy August in 1861, a few months after the Civil War broke out.

The MEA name comes from the name the teachers' union used to have - the Minnesota Education Association. That name has been gone for more than a decade, but some schools still refer to "MEA weekend" on their official calendars.

Members of MEA delegate assembly
Members of the MEA delegate assembly, seated by division at the Hotel Lowry ballroom in downtown St. Paul in 1943.
courtesy Education Minnesota, from the 1999 book

In fact, a majority of Minnesota teachers won't attend. The conference averages about 10,000, while the state has more than 50,000 licensed teachers.

Dooher, though, said the conference is just one component to the kind of professional development that will help students and teachers in the end.

"We really encourage them to make connections in seminars and to make connections with the keynotes, so they can not just say 'it was a great weekend, now it's over,'" he said. "We want them to continue to do these practices ongoing and continue to make those connections with other educators."

Skipping the conference doesn't necessarily mean you're skimping on education. The Blake School in Hopkins actually creates a five-day weekend and strongly encourages high school seniors to visit colleges.

"Rather than miss class time to see a school - take a Monday off or Friday off - we found by creating this five-day window, the majority of seniors and their families will take advantage of this as a time to go visit colleges," said Frank Sachs, who is in charge of Blake's college counseling.

But for the rest of Minnesota, the weekend is a deep-rooted last chance for a trip before winter, and an odd chance at that.

When Kerry Davis moved here from Illinois 15 years ago, he couldn't believe his kids got this four-day weekend a month-and-a-half after school started. But Davis, president of the Ely Chamber of Commerce, has come to like it.

"As a resort owner, it was awesome," Davis said. "One, we got some business in and two, I got my kid back for a few days to do some work."

Even so, Minnesota is an exception to the rule. Planners of a similar event in Wisconsin say they found Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Jersey to be the only National Education Association affiliates to have such a large-scale conference in the fall. And in Wisconsin, just 70 districts - a vast minority - give students days off.

In Minnesota, though, you can plan way ahead if you want. Education Minnesota has already set the dates of its next nine conference weekends. Those dates are posted on the union's website, right next to a reminder that the weekend is no longer called "MEA" - at least not officially.