I’ll tell you why, if you are someone who is wondering if ELT conferences are worth it. Worth the money (and very often it is teachers who self fund to attend). Worth the time (you may have to use annual leave to attend, or give up a weekend).
I’ve had teachers say to me ‘I don’t need to attend trainings/conferences any more, I’ve been teaching 10/20+ years’. In every way, these are the teachers who need to attend conferences and training the most (and it shows in their teaching, obviously)! And who have the most to gain from attending a conference such as, say, the IATEFL conference coming up next month in the UK (and see here for the online sessions).
So, why bother?
First of all, teacher development is for you and benefits YOU. It’s not something to do for your school (though the school undoubtedly benefits from the level of professionalism that is usually indicative of conference attendees). It is too strong to say that if you’re not interested in professional development, then you’re not in the right profession? Teacher training is often, but not always, free to participants and so is an added extra for you, your professional development, and for your CV.
I funded my first trip to IATEFL (must have been Harrogate 2006) and bunked in my colleagues’ room (thank you Carol and Janice!). I can’t even remember why I first booked that trip – I wasn’t supported by my employer at the time (nor payed well), and I was very early in my career. Maybe it was around then I started seeing it as a career, inspired by people like Carol and Janice (the kind of people who never stop attending conferences because they care about their work and never want to stop learning, despite their impressive experience).
My first conference was overwhelming – you do not get a minute to yourself, you are on your feet a lot of the day, it is easy to get lost, attend the ‘wrong’ talk and/or feel a bit daunted by all the networking. If they count as negatives at all (but they’re not, really) then that is it. Among the many positives are; it is overwhelming – you are reminded of all the great stuff going on and return with refreshed enthusiasm for your job. You do not get a minute to yourself – there are so many interesting people to meet, from teachers to publishers. It is easy to get lost – the atmosphere is exciting as over 2500 delegates are dashing around these beautiful cities and well organised conference centres so you can easily just follow the flow and have fun doing it. You attend the ‘wrong’ talk – but discover it was interesting anyway, or you meet someone fascinating while you are chatting through the presentation (though you shouldn’t really). You feel daunted by all the networking – but the free wine receptions really do help with this! Plus all the freebies at publisher events.
I remember hardly being able to take it all in – there is so much to learn. You are kind of jolted out of the bad habits we all inevitably form. I understood concepts more fully, in a way you just can’t from reading the Teacher’s Book. I even presented at a couple of later events – a great challenge. IATEFL especially is a great, inclusive environment to try out and develop presenting skills.
I felt part of something. I’ve mentioned before how isolating teaching can be, either just you in your own classroom, or always within the four walls of your school. It’s so important to get out of all of that – it injects your work with meaning. And your work is full of meaning for the students whose dream it is to travel and study, and who have saved up for years to be in your class.
New teachers have a lot to gain from attending conferences. Fresh from their qualifications, they are open to the new ideas on offer. They can get direction and support. They can network and build contacts which will be useful for their future.
However, it is experienced teachers who stand to gain the most, as I hinted above. In a profession which isn’t often as well paid as others and where your job can, if you allow it to, stagnate, it’s easy to lose enthusiasm. Knowing that, I am happy to offer our teachers funding and encouragement. I’ve been told we offer above average teacher development opportunities here, but I always emphasise it shouldn’t all come from me – what do you as a teacher want to participate in? Experienced teachers can bring all of that experience to conferences, and also take renewed ideas and a sense of perspective. This sense of perspective is one of the most important things to bring back with you, given how easy it is to to lose that within the walls of one school. And without that, what are you getting across to your students?
It’s all about giving your students value. Conferences remind you why you are in this profession. Conferences help you value your own worth and that of your job.
See you in Harrogate 2014?