Did I get as much as I could from the #IATEFL Conference?

Have you ever presented at or even attended an ELT  conference? I’ve been to more than my fair share; I’ve even presented at quite a few, and, having just returned from another epic IATEFL conference in Harrogate, was wondering if you have any interesting anecdotes to share about your experiences.

I originally asked this question for a blog post four years ago – what has happened to all that time? – as a way of rounding off a mammoth series of posts on presenting at conferences . For me, conferences are an enjoyable part of my job and make for a refreshing change from the classroom as well as being a opportunity to meet other teachers and share my experiences. I’m aware, however, that the conference experience doesn’t hold the same place in everyone’s hearts. I’m always interested in what others have to say, so for my original post, way back in 2010, I was still frequenting an ELT forum and asked people to describe their conference experiences; this seems so quaint now and so long ago. Looking back on my ‘conference survival guide‘ made for interesting reading, so much so that I’ve decided to revisit the ideas that my forum buddies shared with me back then (said forum is now sadly defunct, by the way). I’m adding new reflections as and where my thoughts have changed about attending conferences. For each part of this post, the title should be preceded by ‘An IATEFL Conference is…’

1… a chance for interaction

For one reason or another, some of us no longer spend as much time in the classroom as we did when we started out. For others, it is a chance to show off how great they and their innovative ideas are. Events like IATEFL can consequently offer much needed collaboration with others in the profession, as in this example:

‘I am not in the classroom anymore, so I like to do workshops because I get the interaction that I miss. I like doing formats which allow for the audience to participate.’

Sherri in Hawaii

I certainly still spend a majority of my time in the classroom, but I can sympathize with the above statement. I can imagine how nice it must be if you’ve found yourself in an administrative position to again be able to interact with others. Also, a lot of the biggest names in our profession don’t teach per se, so this is a chance to get their views ‘out there.’

Advice: Make sure that you go and thank the speaker after their talk or workshop. They will always appreciate it, probably more so if they no longer teach in the classroom.

2… a step towards teacher training

I’ve done my fair share of teacher training and definitely acknowledge the connection between conferences and teacher education. While there are those that feel that such events should be the preserve of those presenting research, I feel that they can and should operate as forums for teacher training, as IATEFL always manages to do. Indeed, there is a strong body of opinion that if you want to be a teacher trainer then getting on to the conference circuit is extremely important. Consider these examples:

‘Teacher training can be done at conferences, either directly in workshops or indirectly just by learning from the presenters.’

Glenski in Japan

‘I have presented and attended conferences and I’m not really a fan. But if you are getting involved in teacher training… they go hand in hand. All teacher trainers I know present or have presented at conferences… and those who present at conferences who aren’t teacher trainers end up in teacher training. It’s like an unwritten rule in this profession.’

(the late, great)Dmb in Scotland

Advice: If you’re giving a presentation, especially at a marathon event like IATEFL where all the participants start to get tired after a couple of days, consider your audience and how you can involve them as much as possible.

Whatever you do, don't mention 'schools in the cloud'
Whatever you do, don’t mention ‘schools in the cloud’

3… learning to read between the lines

While presenting at a conference may be one logical step in developing your career as a teacher trainer, those attending the event should be wary as to why the people are giving their presentations. The motivations behind making a presentation may be more deep-rooted than merely wanting to share something with the teaching community. Indeed, in some jobs it may be a necessity:

‘If you work for a university or college, it is a rule if you want to have your contract renewed and/or get tenure. In most places you won’t get hired unless you have presentations on your resume. I feel a certain amount of pressure to stay current in my field.

But having said that, I am so tired of attending conference sessions when it is clear that the presenter is only doing it so that they can say that they did it. I feel so mad when I choose badly. My rule of recent years is to just walk out if I think it is a waste of time.’

Sherri in Hawaii

So, the reasons why people are presenting clearly differ, and the underlying motivations may well affect the degree of enthusiasm and indeed the way the presenter approaches the task of delivering their session. With this in mind, go into the conference environment bearing in mind that not every session you attend will be that enlightening, to say the least. IATEFL did a very good job of it this year… or maybe I was lucky and consistently attended excellent sessions. You very much have to take the rough with the smooth, as these three examples suggest:

‘Having been in some really useful workshops, I retain a bit of optimism regarding the value of conferences in general – though there is definitely a LOT of flak out there!’

spiral78 in Europe

‘I’ve presented at a couple of English UK conferences. I have to agree with others though that the things can be very hit and miss affairs – I’ve seen some really duff crap operating under the guise of workshops.’

Golightly in the UK

‘Have done my fair share of attending and presenting. Some people are good, others are weak, and others are laughable. It all depends on who you see. Sometimes the bigger conferences have the worse presentations.’

Glenski in Japan

Advice: after you’ve been to a few conferences you do start to develop a sixth sense in regard to which presentations are going to be a bit duff. A quick rule of thumb, especially if you’re attending a big international event, is to avoid presentations that are delivering research findings and to attend workshops that demonstrate practical teaching ideas. Consider the following advice:

‘I try to read between the lines and figure out what they are NOT saying in the blurb. I avoid people presenting papers, esp. MA candidates who are just reading their paper out loud (I told you, it really does happen – Adam). I like hands-on workshops where you get to do something and you can hear from other teachers and talk to them.

Some plenary speakers or featured speakers have actually helped shape the direction of where I take the curriculum and lead me down paths I never expected to take. You really have to take the good with the bad, and it is good if you are with people that you can debrief with / share pain.’

Sherri in Hawaii

More advice: Conferences, and IATEFL in particular, are marathons and not sprints. Planning the sessions you are going to attend is an absolute must, or you’ll very quickly find yourself mentally burnt out. You really can get a hell of a lot out of the sessions you attend, but decide beforehand which you want to attend and don’t go to any that you’re not interested in.

4… a time and a place for research

Having said it’s best to avoid hardcore research presentations at big international conferences, I believe there is a time and a place for such things. I’ve presented both workshops and research write-ups in my time, but I’ve only ever delivered the latter at smaller, specialized events. At a conference dedicated to one specific area of the profession, you’re more likely to have presenters who’ve prepared thoroughly with the conference in mind and you’ll have an audience fully engaged in what the speakers have to say, as in this example:

‘I have always liked the smaller, more specialized conferences. I have enjoyed many of the CALL conferences in Japan over the years.’

Gordon in Canada

Advice: By all means attend a few sessions where there is specific, niche research being presented, but lighten this up with practical workshops and the like. IATEFL is perfect for offering you the opportunity to do this kind of mixing and matching.

Any more ideas?

So, I’m finally done. Go into your conference with all I’ve said in mind and you should survive relatively unscathed.

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1 thought on “Did I get as much as I could from the #IATEFL Conference?”

  1. Wish I’d read this before Harrogate!! You’re right about the research papers and practical workshops!

    I think with giving a session personality is important, and some people definitely come over as better than others, maybe it’s the same with teaching?!

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