Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Extreme Conferencing!

Part of this blogpost appeared in IN magazine Spring 2014 edition.

This post took forever to write.
It's been a month and a bit since the best thing that could happen to a teacher who also sometimes presents at conferences happened. I presented at the TESOL Convention! Yes, the huge one! With 6,500 people! And where you can't throw a stone without hitting five doctors of Education or generally important people!


A year or so ago I gave a workshop at ELTA in Belgrade on teaching technologies and one of the participants was the former president of TESOL, Suzanne Lydic Panferov, who offered very kind words and even requested to use some of my materials. So I thought, hey, let's submit a speaker's proposal for a workshop in 'Merica, maybe in time I'll progress enough to actually get it accepted.

Imagine my surprise when the acceptance email came! 

Surprisingly enough, it was more stressful to get on the plane than it was to address a room full of people with PhDs. Those of you who know me, will also remember my panicked voice every time I mention flying. I am not happy with flying. Not happy at all.

Problem identified: I can't possibly afford this. 

TESOL themselves have quite a number of opportunities for funding participants from overseas, so anyone thinking of submitting a proposal, go through the opportunities, perhaps you’ll find something. I wasn’t successful, so I turned to the Regional English Language Office (RELO) in Budapest. They were kind enough to sponsor my TESOL Experience and I can’t thank them enough. Without them, I’d surely stay home feeling very sorry for myself indeed, because even to buy a plane ticket would be beyond my financial means.

RELO stands for Really Extremely Lovely Office of people

The papers you need to fill in for the Grant are plentiful, but not overwhelmingly so, for an average person. As for me, I get confused even by my tax return and so I felt a bit like Don Quixote, if my giants were papers with little numbers on them. 

So, after a bumpy and very unpleasant ride, I was finally in 'Murica! It's big! And it's friendly! And people are not fat, contrary to what everyone would have me believe! I had a very childish reaction to every US flag I saw, because the flag meant my experience was real and I was indeed in US. 

So how does such a huge event differ from our regional conferences? 

The majority of the sessions I attended at TESOL were very research-based. At first I was disappointed, because I believed we are all professionals and we need practical ideas, but I’ve since adapted my thinking somewhat. In a recent blog post by The Secret DOS, he lamented the lack of academic rigour in our profession. I think TESOL might be just the ticket for anyone thinking there’s a lack of academia in ELT!

But even though there were so many university professors, the best-attended sessions were those that provided practical activities and just a mention of underlying theory. This proved to me that no matter how high up in academic world you are, you still need practical ideas the most.  

I must admit, I felt a bit lost at first. Practically everyone I talked to had a PhD and worked for a University. It was quite difficult to connect with people with whom you don't share the same teaching context, but those of us who worked with children on a secondary and primary level were extremely glad to see each other! The words most commonly uttered when we stumbled across one another were, "Thank God, someone teaches children!" It was a bit like meeting a long lost cousin and we pointed out one another to our colleagues.

"Sharon! Come here, this girl teaches in secondary too!"
I also made many cultural notes and talked to a lot of interesting people by stepping out the Centre, sitting behind the bar and striking up a conversation with servers, baristas, cashiers and random people in a park. Best conversation starter? The Voodoo Doughnuts pink box. Voodoo Doughnuts seem to be a Portland institution. 

You have to stand in line for a minimum of 20 minutes to get those buggers. In my case in the rain. Bloody donuts... But everyone wanted to know if the lines are really that long, how they taste and if they really have bacon sprinkles.
Yes, average, and yes.

I did a session on teaching technologies, as I normally do. And of course I had a series of technical mishaps. Not as bad as the time when I presented on Internet technologies and the Internet died, but for a girl stressing about her first time presenting in a HUGE conference, still more than I'd care to name.

First, the attendant was quite surprised when I asked him if the sound is connected. It turned out there was a mix-up in the dates, but I was assured everything will be in perfect order for my workshop. Next, I waltz in, all enthusiastic, and see there’s a person with Google Glass waiting to hear what I wanted to say. So, I’ll be talking about teaching technologies to a person who already has a gadget that maybe a fraction of a percentage of a population has. 

Ahaha, yes, I can see you Tech. I Tech too. A bit. Slightly. Don't ask me any difficult questions, please.
The man turned out to be very friendly and we ended up having a long and fruitful conversation after my session on what to do with technology in the class. He was a very productive participant, sharing his expertise with everyone and asking very meaningful questions – the kind of participant you dream about having in your session! My last mishap was the fact that the sound, despite assurances to the contrary, did not work. No worries, it happens all the time in the class and I had enough other material to buzz past.

Looking back, I have to say it was one of the best sessions I gave, mainly because even though I had 1 hour 45 minutes, I still managed to keep a lot of my audience for the duration. 


In a conference where it is normal to pop in a session for 20 minutes and then go somewhere else, I am happy with myself. Especially since my presentation was the last one in the day on the penultimate day of the conference. I also collected some feedback from the people who didn't need to be somewhere important and I was happy to see people rather liked it. There was some friendly advice about my time management and focusing.

Yes I saved the post-its with the feedback. I asked for people to write down one thing they liked about my workshop and one thing I should change for my next workshop.

I also learnt something very important about giving workshops on huge conferences: print little pieces of paper with links to your presentation and give them to participants. It will save you time, because you will get at least five questions at separate stages of your conference along the lines of "Where will this be published?"

The experience was one of the most profound I had as an educator and I think everyone should try to submit their proposal to an international conference. The sense of accomplishment is priceless for a young educator and in the world where our work is underpaid, under-appreciated and where we are basically treated either like lamps or like parasites upon the productive society, we need that feeling to keep on functioning. 

Just don't spend too much time talking to Finnish and German teachers about salaries. Jealousy is such an ugly colour.

And my life would have been perfect and nice after that conference if I weren't an overachiever and went to the Big IATEFL right after Portland.

Part Two features The Big Awake, Cambridge wine and how the collective TEFL world got an aneurysm from a talk.


  1. Great post, Lea! Highly entertaining but with some serious points sprinkled through it. (And that's coming from a university teacher :)

  2. Hello Lea,
    Another great blog post. Eager for more.

  3. Alenka and Frank,

    thanks for your kind words. It is of course highly suspicious that university teachers like my posts about too much research ;)

    Joke aside, I think research is indeed important in our job, otherwise we just do activities and hope for the best. Not exactly what you'd call a sensible time investment!