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.