The insights of a regular conference goer

The experience of attending a conference is exciting and intense. There’s so much pleasurable going on – I learn things, meet new ELT people, see familiar faces, win raffle prizes, get stuff for a bargain prize, drink litres of strong coffee, flip through tons of shiny coursebooks and innovative teaching materials, hear different accents and smell hundreds of different scents. Apart from all the general excitement, I also experience what it is like to be on the other side of the barricade – to be the one who is not ‘in charge’; the one who willingly does what the speaker asks the audience to do. For me these are the most valuable moments because they help me see the world from a student’s perspective.
Being a regular conference goer brings about lots of useful insights. First of all, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just in the power of the speaker to engage my attention. It’s not just the quality of the lecture, the interestingness of the materials or the enthusiasm of the presenter which catches my attention. Most importantly, it’s the state of my mind which adds quality and meaningfulness to the experience. In other words, if I’m tired, I switch off, no matter what’s happening around me. Yet sometimes, despite being totally exhausted, I switch on and start listening attentively. Something unidentifiable and inexplicable switches on the buttons in my brain and I get engaged again. It’s not always in my power to control this and it can neither be influenced by the person in front of me. I reckon this is what happens in our own classrooms as well.
Despite being an out-going person, I’m not into the talk-to-as-many-people-as-possible scenario – either in the hall or in the classroom during mingling activities. I do like talking to old friends if I feel there’s something to talk about; otherwise I prefer to listen and observe. To put it bluntly, I’m not interested in talking to people just for the sake of talking or practising the language (or demonstrating an activity), especially if I know I’ll never see them again. It feels fake and shallow and sometimes I can sense that the others can’t wait for the presenter’s signal indicating we can stop and sit down. They’re not interested in me, a total stranger, either. 
I’m not a fan of mingling in general but what I really can’t stand is the type of activity where each participant gets a slip of paper with a piece of information on it and they are asked to work out the whole story (or whatever) or put the information in the correct order by talking to lots of people. This information gap activity looks very lively at first sight, and I used it a lot in the past, but it’s usually just a facade. It’s time-consuming and although it’s quite noisy, the participants speak little. All in all, the gains are minimal and very little is actually done in terms of language development. When I last took part in this type of activity, I only read my slip once and then, observing the chaos around me, I passively waited for the others to do the work (for about 10 minutes!!). That’s why I stopped using this type of activity in my own classes some time ago.
I don’t think I’m a dumb person but as the attention span is said to be very short (between 30 – 90 seconds before you need to switch off for a while), I really need clear and precise instructions in order to know what to do. On several occasions I was totally lost during an activity and when I turned to the person sitting next to me for help, it turned out she felt the same way. Oftentimes students just follow their intuition when completing a task because they didn’t hear the instructions well. They pretend they understand not to look stupid or just because they don’t care. This is what I sometimes do at workshops too if the instructions are confusing. 
Being an extroverted person who likes to talk things through with people, I still need a lot of time to process information on my own. Presenters generally provide little time for the participants to complete tasks, probably because they think it’s not necessary since we are all teachers and we can do things very quickly (or we can guess the point anyway). However, some useful information may get lost in translation if it is regarded as obvious. Moreover, I think that the participants need to be really challenged by an activity and experience it to the core to realize its potential value for their own students. 
I used to think I learn only when I am asked to do something – to speak, write, walk, mime, etc. But now I think I may well learn a lot just by listening to a very engaging speech. I don’t always need to talk to the person next to me to process information or remember things. Obviously, there are times when pair work is absolutely relevant and meaningful, but it may well be redundant. 

Also, the time slots where nothing happens because the presenter’s mike stopped working or when he must adjust the PowerPoint settings are not embarrassing. These moments don’t spoil the presentation, as one might think. On the contrary, they give the listener time to think and predict what comes next. Thus there’s no point in feeling desperate if this happens to a teacher in a regular lesson.
I remember workshops where I was sitting quietly, dreaming, doing my own stuff, simply paying little attention to what was being said (something I persistently prevent my own students from doing), yet it wasn’t boring at all. The people around me, nodding in agreement and responding eagerly, were an irrefutable proof that it was engaging. It was only my problem that I wasn’t listening; it had nothing to do with the content or the quality of the lecture. On the other hand, I remember presentations which I didn’t find very interesting, yet I enjoyed being there – with the presenter and the participants – and learning eventually occurred despite me being fairly uninterested. 
Conferences are a great opportunity for our professional as well as personal development. After years of experience we may easily lose touch with reality. Thus it’s good to put on our students’ shoes from time to time to see things more clearly – to realize that we’ll probably never please everybody. The way our students perceive our teaching is relative to many factors which we can’t influence, such as their personality and the current state of their mind.  

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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2 Responses to The insights of a regular conference goer

  1. Dear Hana,
    It was really interesting to read for me due to several reasons. First and foremost, I'm going to my first conference this week and I'm overexcited about it and simply can't wait. After reading your post I'm better prepared to understand my own feelings and behavior.
    What's more, I've recently understood that I'm an awful learner myself. I definitely wouldn't want to have myself as a student. When I occasionally attend English or French lessons I can't stay concentrated all 1,5 hours. I suppose it stems from enjoying being multitasking and also from my personal dispositions like finding it difficult to concentrate on one thing for a long time, loosing interest quickly etc. I always reach for my tablet to check mail or write a message or even read something. At the same time I'm following what's going on. I'm just doing something else. You need to get me speaking all 1,5 hours to keep me engaged and concentrated. Thus, I benefit from learning French in one-to-one lessons. And I never do my home task if a task is vague, or if I just don't like it, or if I don't feel like doing it. You can guess that I hardly ever do it) although while preparing for exams I do a huge amount of work since I'm motivated enough.
    Another thing that occurred to me is that I'm an indisciplined blogger) I write posts really seldom (but mostly due to lack of time), it takes me long to answer because I like spending some time moulding my answer but it may lead to my forgetting to answer at all (maybe thinking about that too much creates a feeling of the comment being already answered), when I read posts I may read it not to the end and stop in the middle and then never return. It happens also that I read a post and like it immensely but don't say anything, or I think about what to say and form it in my head but never say anything. Now I'm pondering my behavior I find myself too chaotic.
    To sum up, you made me understand that student's not ideal behavior doesn't always mean I'm doing something wrong.
    Thanks a lot for a pleasant reading and useful ideas.



  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Kate. I'm sorry it took me so long to reply but November is one of the busiest months at work. Apart from teaching regular lessons, we also organize big events for the public, which is time-consuming and exhausting. I’ve just corrected a pile of written assignments and I thought it was high time to let my hair down.

    I'm really happy to hear you're going to attend your first conference (maybe you have already). It’s a truly refreshing experience – you’ll see for yourself. Anyway, I hope you'll come up with a lengthy post right afterwards.

    Thanks for your honest confession. It’s interesting how honestly you describe yourself as a learner and blogger. Well, it’s not easy to be disciplined if one is busy at work. As for blogging, I think I’m half-disciplined; I write regularly but only when I want to. Regarding learning, I can get really passionate but I may easily lose interest too.

    Thanks for your comment and enjoy your conference.



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