Confessions of a conference junkie

Let’s start this one with an activity. Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Think about the last conference you ‘attended’, and list all the talks and workshops you went to (just the topic will do, you don’t need the name of the speaker). Now think about what you learnt at that conference. Put a line through any of the talks where you came away from the session with an activity or idea which you have since used in your teaching. Look at the ones left on the page, and think about why they weren’t good talks for you. Was it because they weren’t relevant? Was the speaker hard to understand or the presentation unclear? Was it a poor-quality session? Were you not ready to learn about that topic yet?

This activity, which I’ll call the conference shopping list, is something I always make a point of doing when I sift through my notes and handouts in the days after a conference. Here are my lists from the Greta conference in Cordoba in October 2018, and TESOL Spain 2017 in Elche.

What was it about these three sessions that didn’t click? At the time, I recall thinking that Fiona Mauchline’s session wasn’t language-focused enough and that Lindsay Clandfield’s ideas didn’t apply to my context. Flash-forward to November 2020 and I can confidently tell you that those three judgements were outlandishly inaccurate.

Mauchline presented a similar workshop at the Innovate ELT conference in September 2020. It was enthralling and full of relevant activities and messages about inclusion and representation. Running throughout the session was the need to evaluate what students see in our classes, and what we can do to either challenge the assumptions they have or subvert their expectations. If you’re a teacher of teenagers, you’re going to have some students suffering body confidence issues, friendship problems, identity crises, or questioning their sexuality. When was the last time one of your coursebook pages showed a gay couple or an overweight teenager? What can you do to bring more of these images into your classrooms in a non-judgemental way?

Mauchline’s message is an important one to engage with, so why didn’t I in 2017? I suspect a large part of it was down to who I was sitting next to, and the sense that I needed to behave in the right way to keep them on my side. They were also a conference junkie, and jaded of new ideas which weren’t directly relevant to his exam classes or indeed their core values. I was also close-minded. The moment when Mauchline flipped a photo horizontally to change its narrative was just as enthralling, but how on earth could I fit that into my intensive course with the exam just around the corner?

How is the narrative of these two photos different? Who has the power?

Lindsay Clandfield’s talk came at a time when we were deciding how to use Whatsapp with our classes. I think we had essentially chosen not to use it, and my purpose in attending the workshop was to confirm that we had made the right decision. I walked out of the session and reported to my fellow managers that there was nothing relevant to us about interacting online – probably believing that there was too much effort involved in making it work.

I’ve recently revisited Clandfield’s work in much more detail. The talk in Elche was essentially the same as this one with Jill Hadfield, presenting ways of building online interaction tasks into a course. So what’s changed? Well, the whole ELT industry has. I remarked recently in a webinar event that the wretched Covid-19 situation has many positives for teaching. In many respects, I think ELT is better online, and Clandfield and Hadfield were ahead of the curve with this. I wish I had been open-minded enough to engage with the talk in the first place. It would have made the summer term during Lockdown so much easier. I’ve also changed. Clandfield’s talk is now directly relevant to me, as I prepare to start tutoring on the Language Teaching for the Planet course from January 2021.

Is there a broader message here about conferences and workshops? Just as online teaching opens up more ways for interacting and using technology in class (isn’t it funny how our academy owners who banned phones in class because they’re a distraction now welcome their use as a learning tool?), it also opens up a whole new world of networking and training opportunities as conferences move online. While webinars used to be the territory of publishers and exam boards, it’s now easier than ever to get access to training and speakers virtually anywhere and at any time. But this only improves ELT if we use it effectively and if we make informed choices about how to use it.

In the 2019-20 academic year, I attended the Greta conference in Cordoba, ACEIA Sevilla, ACEIA Jáen, and TESOL Oviedo. I skipped FECEI Madrid for the first time since its inauguration. By the time I got to Oviedo, I was conferenced-out. I wonder how many workshops and talks I walked out of thinking it had been irrelevant, and what I would learn from them if I had needed them. At the start of 2020 I decided not to go to ACEIA Jaén because there was simply nothing relevant to me. Going for the sake of going wasn’t sufficient. My boss was horrified; she said she expected better from me ‘of all people’.

Just like there’s often a culture of stress in ELT, I suspect there’s also a culture that training is always good. But is it always good? What if you’re not ready for it, yet? Ask yourself that the next time you’re choosing if you should go to a conference, or when you’re deciding what talks to attend. There’s a risk that being a conference junkie could make you jaded to training. Choose carefully, and remember that ‘I’m not going’ is just as valid a choice.

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